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Big Brother car spy puts privacy at risk

Scotsman

A SCOTTISH computer company which stands to profit from so-called Big Brother technology has warned that it could be used for spying, unless legislation is put in place to protect privacy.

Jim Lee, the managing director of Falkirk-based Campbell Lee Plc, said that within two years most cars will be fitted with cheap black boxes which will relinquish control of vital systems, as well as communicating driver habits.

Fears have also been raised that other forms of technology increasingly being used by consumers could - in the wrong hands - leave citizens subjected to unwanted scrutiny.

The virtual private network (VPN) technology in cars will work along the same lines as GPRS mobile phones. However, with some cars using as many as 50 microprocessors, the ability to send two-way telemetry will bring huge benefits and dangers to motorists.

Campbell Lee will host vast amounts of data from cars and lorries, ranging from insurance details to the location of the car, and even the driver’s preferred radio station.

Mr Lee, 56, warned that existing legislation does not provide adequate protection. He added: "Suddenly, there is almost limitless information and limitless control from these black boxes. As well as knowing where you are, how many miles you’ve travelled, and how much fuel you’ve consumed, the outbound controls can limit speed or even disable the car if it is reported as stolen.

"My primary concern is that there isn’t any legislation to control the use of this data. I find it scary, and it’s not tomorrow’s world, it’s here today."

Mr Lee said that drivers, keen to protect their cars from theft or to benefit from enhanced communications - such as live travel updates and road maps - may unwittingly sign away their rights to other data in car dealers’ forecourts.

"What we’ve got is the technology to simultaneously communicate with thousands of vehicles," he said. "But there has to be a framework of rules in place to protect from abuse of the data."

Civil liberties groups are concerned that British citizens are already among the most closely watched in the Western world.

On the roads, more than 4,500 speed cameras catch a million drivers a year and net £66 million in fines. Fears have also been raised over microchips the size of a grain of sand, which can be inserted in clothes and track the buyer. The RFid tag, heralded as the successor to the bar code, is used in some swipe cards, pet passports and the tracking of PoWs during the war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, hundreds of government agencies, from MI5 to the Food Standards Agency, can run surveillance operations through e-mail and internet.

Sue Nicholson, from the RAC Foundation, said that the new technology was intrusive.

She said: "I don’t think this kind of information-gathering system would be acceptable in your living room, so why should it be acceptable in your car?

"There is a huge range of potentially damaging information which can be collected on personal, employment and legal levels. There are some very positive aspects, but without tight control it can be abused."

James Cooper, a senior research fellow at the Transport Research Institute at Napier University, Edinburgh, said: "These things are already out there to an extent, but we’re not protected by privacy legislation.

"VPN has a lot of benefits, provided the data is collected either in a way that is voluntary or controlled, but there needs to be legislation to ensure that control is established."

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