Last week, we reported that Hertz has started putting cameras in its rental cars—a practice that has alarmed some of its customers who are worried about being spied on. Hertz said that the cameras, which are currently installed in 13 percent of its fleet, are all currently inactive and that the company is unsure if it will ever use them. But it turns out that the presence of a camera in a rental car, even an inactive one, is enough to freak people out.
After our story was published, an anonymous person using a burner e-mail address reached out to us claiming to have been involved in the development of "NeverLost"—the name Hertz gives to the navigational devices that have the cameras built in. He or she was upset by the privacy freak-out over the cameras, and said that on the NeverLost team, "there was a lot of discussion during the development about how to not creep out customers." After pointing out that our animation above highlights the flash not the camera, which is to the right, this person wrote:
There are two privacy features protecting the user. The first, is the cool electronically blacked out glass. It turns clear when the camera is in use, so if you cannot see the camera it cannot see you. The second feature is the turret that the camera is mounted in. When you turn the knob on the top to the off position the camera is facing the side of the unit behind a shutter and cannot see out the window.
It appears that [Hertz] have shot themselves in the foot with the blacked out glass not allowing the user to see that there is a physical barrier preventing someone from watching you.
Rich Broome, the head of communications for Hertz, confirmed this week that the cameras in the NeverLost 6 devices have these protections built in. In an interview, Broome emphasized again that the cameras haven't been used thus far, and could only be used if Hertz rolled out a software update to the NeverLost 6 devices that activated the cameras—which explains why Hertz hasn't announced anything about the cameras yet. "It would be confusing to talk to customers about something they can't currently use about which no decision has been made to even activate," said Broome by phone.
Broome said that Hertz decided to install the cameras in its most recent redesign of the NeverLost devices to give the company the option later if it wanted to use them. The only plan Hertz has in mind for the cameras, says Broome, is for customers to activate them if they want to talk to a customer service agent. "Video conferencing like Skype and FaceTime is becoming so ubiquitous that Hertz thought it might be something customers would want because they've become so comfortable with it these days," said Broome. "Maybe there would be customer demand for video chatting in the future."
Even though Hertz wasn't ready to activate the cameras, Broome said it was "economically efficient" to put the devices into NeverLost units in 2014 because they were upgrading the units fleet-wide. The thinking was, "Why not put a lens in now rather than a couple of years from now?"
Broome said that if the cameras are activated one day, in addition to the frosted glass and turning of the camera away from customers when it's off, there will be a camera icon on the screen whenever the camera is in use. "The camera icon would clearly be on so you would know it was activated," said Broome, adding that it was "always the plan to have the customer activate the camera."
Broome added that Hertz has gotten no complaints from customers since the cameras started appearing in cars in mid-2014. "We have 60,000 NeverLost devices in the whole country and hundreds of thousands of customers who have been in vehicles with them and didn't have any complaints," said Broome. "It’s a legitimate concern but we hadn’t heard this from customers before your article."
There were a few complaints online about the cameras, which we highlighted last week, but Broome says Hertz had not seen them.
Hertz is now in the difficult position of defending a feature it may never even use. "If people are renting a car with a camera and they are really concerned about privacy, we can put them in a different car," said Broome. "We don’t want customers to feel watched when they’re in the car."
As of now, seven out of eight Hertz cars don't have any cameras in them, active or not. So while customers' fears may be overblown, the company could have been more transparent about its intentions. Perhaps the moral of the Hertz story is: don't install a covert camera in your product unless you're prepared to explain why. Or just don't install covert cameras.