Privacy and the Sharing Economy

In a previous column, I mentioned a talk with the title “Cybersecurity Challenges of Systems-of-Systems for Fully-Automated Road Vehicles,” which I delivered on November 8, 2017 at the 2017 CEWIT (Center of Excellence Wireless and Information Technology) Conference in Stony Brook, New York. In that presentation, I suggested that the primary objective of companies, such as Google Uber and Lyft, being in the autonomous-vehicle business is to harvest the data that they could collect about vehicles and passengers. This is in contrast to the auto manufacturers who want to sell cars. I also voiced the opinion that the data gatherers would succeed over the car manufacturers, particularly as the expected number of vehicles needed when they become fully autonomous could drop precipitously. That may explain why many auto manufacturers are getting into the software and data-collection businesses.

To my surprise and gratification, a couple of weeks after my presentation, I read an article supporting the idea of data collection being the main goal of sharing-services providers. The article appeared in the November 26, 2017 issue of The New York Times Magazine and was written by Brook Larmer with the lengthy title “China has fully embraced the ‘sharing economy’ – but in ways that show just how cynical the concept can become.” The main point of Larmer’s article is that the Chinese government is strongly supporting such services as bicycle sharing for purposes of collecting data on those using the service. The comments that particularly caught my attention were “There are no walls of privacy” and “Collecting data is the first goal of the sharing economy.”

Let’s make no bones about it … As I pointed out in my presentation, there are professed reasons for all the players involved—data collectors, auto manufacturers, government agencies, municipalities, industry associations—and then there are the real reasons. And the difference between them are significant. Like the witch in “Sleeping Beauty,” we are being offered the shiny, rosy, appetizing side of the apple wherein the poison lies well hidden.

Again, we have the opportunity to assert our data privacy, but the economic forces of the huge data companies are difficult, if not impossible, .to push back against. Nevertheless, being forewarned could mean being forearmed. I hope so.

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