Tom MacWright

Car privacy

With sensors, microphones, and cameras, cars collect way more data than needed to operate the vehicle. They also share and sell that information to third parties, something many Americans don’t realize they’re opting into when they buy these cars.

The irony of privacy with cars is that private industry has an incredibly well-tuned privacy-invading, tracking machine, but license plates as a means of identification have completely failed, with the endorsement of the police.

Cars without license plates are everywhere in New York City, but the Adams administration has been slow to address the problem, allowing tens of thousands of drivers to skirt accountability on the road each year. The city received more than 51,000 complaints about cars parked illegally on the street with no license plates in 2023, according to 311 data analyzed by Streetsblog. From those complaints, the Department of Sanitation removed only 1,821 cars, or just 3.5 percent.

In major cities, it’s a routine occurrence to see ‘ghost cars’ with missing or fake identification. Government interventions into running red lights are opposed by the ACLU until they can sort out the privacy impact. Cars also grant people additional privacy rights against search and seizure that they wouldn’t have riding a bike or pushing a cart.

I am, for the record, pretty infuriated by drivers who obscure the identity of their cars. Cars in cities are dangerous weapons that disproportionately hurt the disadvantaged. We don’t allow people to carry guns with filed-off serial numbers, we shouldn’t allow people to drive cars with no license plates.

There are tradeoffs: increasing surveillance of cars via red lights and license plate enforcement will undoubtedly save pedestrians and also it will definitely push people into further precarity and cost them their jobs when they lose their licenses or can’t pay the ticket. In a perfect world, we’d have Finnish-style income-based ticket pricing and street infrastructure that prevented bad behavior from occurring in the first place. But in the meantime there are some hard tradeoffs between reducing traffic deaths and further surveilling and criminalizing drivers.

So: cars are a surveillance-laden panopticon for private industry, but governments don’t have enough data, or enough motivation, to prosecute even the most brazen cases of people driving illegally and anonymously. And private industry isn’t doing much to combat road deaths.