How to Protect Your Privacy While Driving an Internet-Connected Car

Balancing the pros and cons of privacy with internet-connected cars can be challenging, but it’s critical for making informed decisions.
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For anyone who grew up watching science fiction, driving an internet-connected car feels like being transported into the magic of the big (or small) screen. Unfortunately, movies and television shows rarely talk about the real-world privacy issues that smart cars create. While connected vehicles provide a plethora of conveniences, they also collect, store, transmit, and process large amounts of personally identifiable information (PII).

To protect privacy, internet-connected car owners should understand what information their vehicles use, how the applications use that information, and ways to protect their vehicle data.

In this article
What is an internet-connected car?
How do connected vehicles work?
What are the pros of internet-connected cars?
What are the cons of internet-connected cars?
How to protect you and your connected car
Internet-connected cars FAQs
Bottom line

What is an internet-connected car?

Internet-connected cars collect and share information with systems outside the vehicle, typically using cellular networks or Bluetooth technologies for connectivity. These cars are part of the internet of things (IoT), which means it is part of the network of physical objects that connect and exchange data over the internet.

Connected vehicles offer features and services that enhance their owners' driving experiences, like:

  • Real-time traffic updates
  • Weather updates
  • Navigation capabilities
  • Remote vehicle monitoring and control
  • Safety and security features
  • Maintenance and repair recommendations

To provide these connected services, the car's system collects your data, which includes:

  • Speed
  • Location
  • Driving habits

To provide drivers with the necessary information, connected vehicles use two types of applications.

  • Single vehicle: Cloud-based applications that provide in-car content or services, like helping drivers find local parking lots or gas stations
  • Cooperative safety and efficiency: Sensors and processors connected to applications, like forward collision warning or lane change warning

Typically, owners create accounts that enable the vehicle to connect to their smartphone, meaning that the user needs to provide identifying information that, at a minimum, includes:

  • An email or other login ID
  • A password

By combining login information with user-specific data, like geographic location, these applications create a privacy risk.

How do connected vehicles work?

Connected vehicles have two basic networks that they use to communicate with the manufacturer and the world around them. If you think about your home, you may have two different networks without even realizing it. You have the wireless network that your devices use to talk to the internet, like when you’re browsing the news or streaming videos. You may also have a local (or internal) network that your devices use to talk to one another without connecting to the wider internet, like sending photos from your phone to your printer.

Connected cars have the same kinds of networks.

  • Internal network: Connects vehicles’ parts and functionalities using a Controller Area Network (CAN), FlexRay, or ethernet connection so that different parts of the car can share data, like managing brake controls and airbags
  • External network: Connects the vehicle to other cars, your cell phone, or your home Wi-Fi

Connected cars can use any of the following communication technologies.

  • Cellular network: Similar to how your smartphone works, new cars can have cellular network connectivity that enables the car to connect to applications and to provide an in-vehicle hotspot that devices can use.
  • Bluetooth: Typically used for calls and infotainment, this technology enables hands-free access to phone features.
  • Dedicated Short-Range Communication (DSRC): DSRC is a wireless communication system specifically designed for connected vehicles.
  • Near Field Communication (NFC): NFC is a short-range wireless communication that allows devices to communicate with one another, like remotely starting an engine or unlocking car doors.

Connected cars manage and use data much like any other application.

  • Collect data: Sensors detect and measure vehicle performance, including speed, acceleration, fuel consumption, engine temperature, road conditions, or traffic flow.
  • Transmit data: Using cellular networks, satellite networks, or DSRC, the sensors transmit data to service providers, like the manufacturer.
  • Process data: Manufacturers and service providers use the data to deliver value based on habits or preferences, like alerting drivers to maintenance needs, automatically scheduling service appointments with local dealerships, or customizing routes based on driver habits.

Types of car connectivity

In the world of connected vehicles, manufacturers and app designers focus on three types of vehicle connectivity.

  • Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V): Vehicle-to-vehicle communication uses 360-degree radio signals. Vehicles can sense each other and exchange information, like what vehicles might be around a corner or behind a building.
  • Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I): Using wireless network communications, vehicles exchange data with roadway infrastructure, like warning drivers about upcoming road curves or work zones.
  • Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X): Using DSRC or cellular V2X (C-V2X) LTE cellular communications, vehicles collect and transmit data between other vehicles and roadside, including pedestrian and cyclist smartphones.

Are Teslas internet-connected cars?

Yes, electric vehicles like Teslas are internet-connected cars. They come with features that use data for streaming music and podcasts, capturing live traffic, and more.

What are the pros of internet-connected cars?

While today’s connected cars aren’t quite as cool as "Knight Rider," they offer several important benefits. They provide a better driving experience, help you save money, and give you added physical safety.

Some key benefits:

  • Navigation: Real-time traffic updates and alternate route suggestions with integrated GPS and internet connectivity
  • Entertainment: Streaming music, podcasts, shows, and movies to keep people entertained on long rides
  • Safety: Advanced safety features that can help prevent accidents, like automated parking assistance and lane departure warnings
  • Fuel efficiency: Tracks driving behavior and provides feedback on fuel efficiency to reduce costs
  • Remote access: Remote access features like locking and unlocking doors, starting the vehicle, or adjusting the in-vehicle temperature

An infotainment system, Apple Carplay and Android Auto for example, provides access to a lot of these benefits, like speech-guided navigation and streaming music.

What are the cons of internet-connected cars?

As with every technology, you want to weigh the benefits of owning a smart car against the possible problems. While the benefits of smart cars appear tangible, the problems that they create are often more abstract.

Some fundamental concerns:

  • Privacy: Collected PII includes driving habits, location, and login information that cybercriminals can steal or companies can use for marketing
  • Cybersecurity: Software or network vulnerabilities that compromise vehicle safety, like taking over a car’s controls
  • Dependence on technology: System glitches or dropped connections that leave you stranded or limit functionality
  • Cost: Additional technology and features that increase costs
  • Over-the-air (OTA) software updates: Bug fixes and security updates with complete access to insecure in-vehicle networks

Presently, most cybersecurity weaknesses remain possible but unlikely; they were typically found by security researchers looking to control a car remotely. Although security researchers could lock or start the cars from a distance, the more realistic concerns relate to the researchers’ ability to access customers’ accounts and PII.

How to protect you and your connected car

If you’ve been dreaming about a smart car, you don’t necessarily need to abandon the dream. Just like you can take steps to stay safe online, you can take the following steps to protect yourself, your car, and your information.

  • Research options: Different smart car platforms help consumers manage the data that they share with their car manufacturer or auto insurer.
  • Encrypt data: A virtual private network (VPN) scrambles data when you’re connected to the internet, making it useless even if a cybercriminal steals it.
  • Customize settings: Most applications and all smartphones allow you to change your privacy settings so that you can limit what you share with them. For example, you can share your location only when an application is in use, or you can block your location entirely.
  • Use strong passwords: Try to use a different, strong password for every application consisting of at least 8-10 characters with a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters.
  • Update software: Just like you update your computer’s operating system, you need to update your connected car software as soon as updates are available.
  • Review privacy policies: Read through any privacy policies so that you know your rights, including what data the applications collect and whether you can opt out of third-party data sharing.

If you’re like most people, you have various devices across your home, including laptops, smartphones, tablets, and printers. A VPN router can help you protect all devices. Some of the top VPN routers include:

For further details, you can review our article on the best VPN routers.

Internet-connected cars FAQs


Which cars are connected to the internet?

Nearly all modern cars are connected to the internet. While many cars produced after 2016 have built-in connectivity, many models prior to 2016 can be retrofitted with Wi-Fi by:

  • Using a smartphone as a wireless hotspot
  • Purchasing a dedicated mobile hotspot
  • Adding a permanent wireless modem and router


Why do we need internet-connected cars?

Internet-connected cars give a better driving experience, save money, and improve security. With internet-connected cars, people can get the following:

  • Weather updates
  • Traffic updates
  • GPS for improved navigation
  • Ability to lock and unlock cars from a distance
  • Remote car starters
  • Road condition updates
  • Alerts about vehicle maintenance
  • Automatic service appointment scheduling


What year did cars start connecting to the internet?

Cars have had computer chips that manage simple functions since the 1960s and 1970s. However, General Motors and Ford introduced the first versions of connected cars in 1996 with their emergency response GPS capabilities.


What is the Security and Privacy in Your Car Act?

The Security and Privacy in Your Car Act of 2017, also called the SPY Car Act of 2017, was a bill introduced by Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts. The bill, which was referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, suggested basic data protection requirements, including a Cyber Dashboard informing consumers about how the vehicle protects security and privacy. No action has been taken on the bill since 2017.

Bottom line

While the future of the world is digital, you can still control the information that you share with companies, even those in the automotive industry. Connected car technology offers various benefits, including helping you save money and entertaining your passengers. Simultaneously, to gain the benefits, you have to give up some information. When you know how to be anonymous online, such as by using a VPN, you can take steps to control and protect your information.

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Author Details
Karen Walsh is a lawyer and former-internal-auditor-turned-subject-matter-expert in cybersecurity and privacy compliance. Karen has been published by leading industry outlets and quoted by The New York Times and CNN Investigative reporters.