A few years ago, insurance companies started offering people the option to put a computerized chip known as a "black box" in their cars that would monitor their driving habits. As Orwellian as the idea sounds, lots of people signed up, because driving safely could get them discounts on their car insurance, but insurance companies said they wouldn't penalize them with higher premiums if they drove poorly. Over time, the monitor has evolved from silently watching and recording driving behavior to actually chiding bad drivers—beeping, for example, when they make a "hard brake." It's not just your passengers judging your driving now.
When you put a black box in your car, though, the chip doesn't just judge you. It also monitors anyone who gets behind your car's wheel—so that, say, a joyriding valet or a misbehaving mechanic could get you dinged by your insurance company. That's what happened to a commenter on a forum for people with Volkswagens. A Connecticut-based driver, writing under the handle "Bugalydosh," told the tale of taking his VW, with a Progressive Snapshot black box plugged in, to Firestone to get his tires changed:
Here is another reason why having the Progressive chip in your car is a good thing. I dropped my car off at Firestone for service to have the tires taken off my stock wheels and put on my new wheels. When I came back I saw on Progressive they had penalized me with my insurance due to hard braking.
When I went to pick up the car I asked "did you test drive it" they said "no we don't need to for tires only. If it was an alignment we would have."
Thanks to his black box, the VW owner had proof that the tire shop was lying. The chip told him that his car had been driven—and driven hard, from 2 mph to 20 mph several times within 60 seconds. The minute of driving got him "dinged for 1 hard brake." When he presented the evidence, Firestone gave him a 50 percent discount on the tire change. The car owner presented the tale to his forum triumphantly, but other drivers were skeptical.
"I'm glad you're happy with this, but I can't think of many things I'd find more obnoxious than being monitored constantly by my insurance company," wrote one commenter. Others wondered about his being penalized for the one-time driving by the mechanic. The original poster didn't respond to an attempt to reach him on Facebook, but he said in the thread that Progressive doesn't take into account when someone else is driving the car. "I could easily say my car was at the shop at other times when it wasn't," wrote Bugalydosh.
Even a device in your car watching everything you do can miss things. Back in 2013, a fight erupted between Tesla and the New York Times. After a Times journalist gave the Model S a terrible review, Tesla fired back with the car's data logs, which it said proved that the journalist had purposefully made it difficult for the car to perform. In response, the New York Times published a retort claiming that the data didn't tell the full story. The tet-a-tet led security expert Bruce Schneier to observe that even "intense electronic surveillance of the actions of a person in an enclosed space did not succeed in providing an unambiguous record of what happened."
"This will increasingly be a problem as we are judged by our data," said Schneier. "And in most cases, neither side will spend this sort of effort trying to figure out what really happened."
At Fusion's request, Progressive reviewed the VWVortex comment thread. The company clarified that its black box units are only installed for 30 days to six months, and that they are removed after the appropriate discount is determined. The company claimed it would remove this event from Bugalydosh's history if he reached out to them. "In cases like this example, if a customer contacts us with a legitimate reason why we should exclude a hard braking event, we can remove it from their history and the event will not be included in their final discount calculation," said a Progressive spokesperson, who added that one single hard brake incident was unlikely to effect a six-month estimation of a customer's driving habits.
Our cars, like so many other devices being enhanced with embedded data collection, are becoming spy machines. You can preserve your privacy, but only if you're willing to forego discounts on your auto insurance—and the pleasure of embarrassing your mechanic.