Big Brother Is Watching Us

I received a solicitation from my auto insurance company offering at least a 5 percent discount if I would install a tracking device in my car. The device would use GPS, and perhaps cell phone tower triangulation, to monitor all of my driving.

The insurance company would know how many miles I drive, and where. It would also know my driving habits behind the wheel. How quickly I accelerate, or how abruptly I brake. It would know how fast I drive, and I suppose, could compare my speeds with the posted limit. It would also know when I’m driving and may make inferences from the time of day I am on the road.

I immediately thought this is too much personal data to give up. But then I realized I have been flying with this level of monitoring for decades. From taxi out to taxi in on most of my trips the FAA monitors everything I do, and everything I say on the frequency. In jets every word spoken in the cockpit is recorded. And for airline flying every control input, airspeed, altitude and major system operation is recorded and available for examination.

If you fly only VFR you may think you escape FAA tracking, but not entirely. Over the past several years the FAA has developed software that can identify on radar recordings pilots squawking VFR transponder codes, and often even a primary target with no transponder. This capability is used most frequently in accident investigations where the FAA can now show the NTSB investigators the flight path, altitudes, ground speeds and so on of a pilot who never once called a controller. But the same techniques could be used to locate almost any airplane on a radar recording for whatever reason.

Is this almost continuous tracking of our flying behavior by the government a problem? I don’t know. It’s been part of my flying, particularly IFR flying, for so long I guess I have just grown accustomed to being monitored and recorded at all times.

Airline crews had to come to grips with cockpit voice recorders, and flight data recorders, years ago. One of the beneficial efforts of pilots’ unions was to demand rules that prevent the recordings from being used for enforcement, or for performance monitoring by airline management. That policy has changed somewhat with development of flight quality assurance programs that permit safety experts to examine recordings looking for unsafe operational patterns, but even there, the information cannot be used for enforcement or discipline unless there are willful, almost criminal actions on the part of pilots.

When cockpit voice recorders became required equipment in business jets several years ago we all tried to stick totally to business, especially during taxi and pre-takeoff checks. Who wants something like a blown tire event to allow people to listen to you discuss last night’s dinner, or whatever, as you roll toward the runway. But, hard as you may try, we tend to forget, at least sometime, that that little mic is there and listening to every word.

It’s odd, but I’m beginning to think I trust the government more when it comes to tracking my performance, at least in the cockpit, than I do an insurance company following me in my car. Yes, busting an assigned altitude, or not following a controller’s clearance can have serious consequences. But I know that we pilots and controllers are all working for the same goal which is to do our jobs with as few mistakes as possible and to promote safety. When it comes to private industry like an automobile insurance company what is the goal? Pretty clearly it is to make more money by weeding out the higher risk drivers and not insuring them, or charging them much higher premiums.

I agree to fly in the system with all of its continuous and automated tracking and recording of my performance because I think I’m up to the challenge. I really don’t think about the voice and radar recordings, I just want to do the best I possibly can as a pilot.

I also think I’m an ok driver who doesn’t fib to the insurance company about how much I drive in a year, or drive like I did when I was a teenager. But having some insurance company snoops looking at my every move behind the wheel is still a little creepy. And I fear that we may be tarred with presumed guilt if we don’t install a tracking device in our car.

So watch me fly all you want, but I’m still trying to decide what to let my car insurance company know about how I drive.

This entry was posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Big Brother Is Watching Us

  1. Kayak Jack says:

    Mac, it probably comes down to a matter of trust. I’m part of a users’ survey group for USAA, and responded to a questionnaire a month or three ago about these tracking devices. At the time, I though positively about them. After reading your article here, I may rethink that.

    Still, though, I tend to trust USAA a lot more than companies like ones who hire a gal named Flo to advertise for them.

    Just my 2 cents worth.

  2. Mac,
    I personally don’t like the amount of information that the government can avail themselves, but like you I have accepted this as the new-norm. In my case some of this is self-inflicted. My EFIS stores an exhaustive amount of data that post-incident could be used to incriminate me – not that I’m out buzzing houses, but you get the point. In spite of this, I haven’t riped the EFIS from my panel for the sake of anonymity. I soldier on and when that little devil-man shows up on my shoulder and tries to entice me into something I shouldn’t be doing, I think of big brother.

    • Ultralight Guy says:

      I’m w\Glen. It’s fun to watch the Euorpeans doing wacky things on every roadway……… But, how were those videos obtained? BIG Brother with lots of eyes. Eyes everywhere. Next, the ins. company’s tracker is tucked neatly under our seat. What are they really looking for, and how far up can they look??
      Remember – -”Just because You’re paranoid, doesn’t mean They’re not out to get you !!!! “

  3. Marc Rodstein says:

    At least the insurance company gives you the choice to opt in or out!

  4. Glenn Darr says:

    this may be the “new norm”, but I’ll be damned if I am going to give up voluntarily any more freedom than what has already been taken from me!!!

  5. Cary Alburn says:

    I’m not fond of the “big brother” mentality, whether it be of government (FAA) or my insurance company. On the other hand, if I could get some positive feedback of how I could improve as a consequence of “big brother” watching over me, perhaps it would be beneficial, both in flying and in driving. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

    Incidentally, FWIW, as much as I like USAA after being with them more almost 45 years, the fact is that they farm out some of their policies to Flo’s company. Just sayin’.


  6. Fred Stadler says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful blog entry on an important topic.

    “Opting-in” to data collection by an insurance company is just an interim step. Data are already available about your car use, even without a special device connected to its diagnostic connector. Every time you buy gas with a credit card or use a toll tag, information is generated that reflects your driving history. And as automobiles become more completely connected to the Internet, all sorts of data will be collectable (and collected!) whether we like it or not.

    Insurance costs seem to have affected new aircraft design, with high rates for retractable gear planes spurring high-performance, fixed-gear aircraft. Crash testing has had similar effects on car designs and I expect we will soon see some traditional automotive choices becoming unaffordable and perhaps completely unavailable. The most obvious of these is that the “luxury” of actually driving your own car may well become prohibitively expensive, as self-driving cars establish better safety records. With virtually all new cars driving themselves (at the speed limit), fewer new roads will be needed. Then the need for heavy crash protection will likely be sacrificed for energy efficiency.

    I don’t fault the insurance companies for this, even though I find the trends disturbing. A future with ultra-light cars all travelling together at the same speed may be attractive to some, but to me it sounds a lot like airline travel on the ground (didn’t we call that the bus?). I’m very glad I’ve lived in an era when personal transportation, both in the air and on the ground, has had so many choices.

  7. SkyGuy says:

    What happened to the good old days ?
    When flying was hassel free.

  8. Thomas Boyle says:

    I don’t much care for being watched either, but if you think an FAA enforcer is just looking out for safety, there are some people in Brooklyn with a bridge you might like to buy.

    Government enforcers make their careers with “bones”. More completed enforcement actions for a given amount of effort, more advancement: it’s that simple. Whether you are a genuine safety hazard matters not (unless you bump into an enforcer who, for his/her own reasons, actually cares about that); what matters is that there’s a regulation, that there’s evidence of a violation, and that it doesn’t take a lot of time to tie it all together. The nice FAA people you meet from day to day, and the controllers, mostly are people who care about safety, and many of them love – or at least like – aviation. But, the enforcers are not these people. To learn more about this, I suggest reading the legal section of AOPA Pilot for a few months.

    Insurance companies are out to make money. If their tracking shows you are a bad driver, they may not insure you at all. If you are a poor one, they’ll charge you a lot. If a good one, they’ll charge you less. That’s it: they are emphatically NOT in the business of finding excuses to get rid of good drivers, and if you’re a poor driver they’d rather charge you more than lose you altogether. You know what? It sounds pretty fair to me. Creepy, but fair.

    Here’s a hint: when you compare the behavior of a monopolist with the behavior of a competitive business, chances are that the competitive business will virtually always treat you better than the monopolist. In the pursuit of profits, your insurance company has to compete with other insurance companies, which will jump at your business if your current company treats you poorly.

    On the other hand, the government, as Paul Krugman has noted, the government is a $3,500,000,000,000 insurance monopoly, with guns. And it’s tracking your every move.

    • John says:

      and not the “small” guns either..they got the BIG ONES…

    • TheTopBloke says:

      They’ll charge you less? You sure about that? Have you premiums ever gone down? I seriously doubt it.

      • Thomas Boyle says:

        I don’t participate in that program, but yes, lower premiums is why people do. As for me, yes, I can confirm that safe driving has gotten me lower rates, and insurers often advertise various incentives for safe driving (such as “vanishing deductibles”, “accident forgiveness”, etc.)

    • Lardo says:

      And for those not paying attention… government is a monopoly.

  9. Rich J says:

    Well if your car is less than 10 years old, it most likely has a system that tracks your speed, brake actions, just about everything except GPS coordinates, and some with dashboard built in GPS maps may track that too. Fact is there is way more computing power in even the cheapest automobile than there was in the Apollo spacecraft. And if you’re in an accident, or engaging in some sort of behavior, then big brother can definitely access this data.

    • Lardo says:

      Well… if that’s true (and it probably is) somethign should be done about it. Seems to me this is an invasion of privacy… and a violation of the 4th Amendment.

  10. TheTopBloke says:

    5% off for installing a GPS unit to track my every movement? Pfff… My privacy is worth more than 5% of my premium. No thank you.

    • Thomas Boyle says:

      That’s the great thing about insurance companies: you can say “no, thank you”. Try that with the government…

      I think Mac has “gone native” on this one. Too much time spent with the FAA…

      • John R says:

        Tracking you for insurance is optional…… for now. I wouldn’t be suprised if all the insurance companies make it a requirement within a few years. Several states are looking into mandating tracking as well so they can start taxing drivers by the mile with rates based on what roads they drive and if they drive during rush hour.

  11. Joe Parsons says:

    Adopt the Nancy Reagan rule:
    “Just say no.”

  12. Robert Watkins says:

    Not a word in any of this about two other functions, as follows:
    1. If your car is stolen it can now be located.
    2. In a mechanical breakdown, the tow truck driver can trace your location.

    As with everything else there is always good, and, bad.

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  14. johnbpatson says:

    For a 5% cut no way, 50% and we may be talking, especially if I get to use the data if I ever need to.

  15. Charlie Calkins says:

    “Big Brother has been watching us for many decades in common devices you may not even be aware of. With the fast forwarding of technology invasive devices are becoming even harder to detect, but they are there. As for the 5%, you mentioned, it’s like the phone company “Giving you for free” a new cell phone or discounting other devices. You will eventually pay for it. It is just a way to track you and use it as another marketing device.
    Personnally, where I retired from, I can see both sides of the “tracking” argument. I like to be tracked while flying or driving. It lets me know that in case of an emergency someone will know where I am. It even works when I go for a walk. However, there are some times and places that I do feel “Big Brother” need keep his place.

  16. Bob says:

    A few years ago, an aquaintance of mine who is a farmer that lives well off of the beaten path, purchased a GMC truck with the Onstar feature. He stopped by a neighbors place one wintery day and had a few drinks on his way home. When he left, the raods were a bit slippery and he went off the road and his truck ened up on it’s side. He hadn’e been going fast and he wasn’t hurt so he climbed out and phoned his wife to come pick him up. Meanwhile, the onstar figured out that the vehicle was in an accident and the operator couldn’t get an answer from the ocupant since he was standing outside, so they did what they’re designed to do, which is dispatch the police and ambulance to the scene! Long story short, his wife didn’t get there before the police did and he was charged with DUI and had to walk for 6 months.
    Now, he obviously shouldn’t have been drinking and driving and got what he deserved in the end, but sometimes you have to be carefull what you wish for with modern technology!

  17. Mike says:

    Recently an elderly driver ran a stop sign and pulled directly into the path of my vehicle. To avoid a collision I was forced to apply heavy breaking until the vehicle was clear of my path, and then, to avoid being hit by the car behind me I had to apply heavy acceleration. The driver of the first car never once looked in my direction. The driver behind me was not paying attention either. Ironically, assuming that heavy acceleration and breaking is considered “bad” by the data watchers, a monitoring device would have pegged me as the “poor” driver and the other two as the “safe” driver.
    Now, I guess one or two such events may be averaged out and not show me as a poor driver, but the bigger point is this: How does any of this data prove that you are a good or bad driver? The data profile belonging to the elderly driver (low mileage with gentle driving habits) is probably more desirable than my own.

  18. Lardo says:

    Okay, we’re all agreed then… we don’t like it when private companies monitor our coming & going. But some would be alright with it if it was the government sying on us? Provided it was in the name od “safety”? Why?

    Why would we trust government more than anyone else? Isn’t government made up of people? Just the same as any corporation? What is it about government that we think of them as more wise and/or saintly than anyone else? Especially given multi-century’s worth of evidence to the contrary?

    Truth is, I’d accept it more from a private company than from government. (Not that I’m giggy with the idea from either.) Because if the private company did something with the info, that I didn’t like, I could fire them. Go ahead… just try firing the government.

    By the way… (and you can trust me on this) the day is coming – though I can’t say how soon – when government WILL mandate this kind of automobile tracking. Yes, in the name of safety. And a whole bunch of us will think that, “Yea. What a great idea. It’ll save lives.”

  19. skip says:

    I was gonna join with those who said something negative, but then I realized the government is tracking internet posts, so I would like to state for the record that I categorically disavow and disassociate myself from any such criticism. Furthermore, I would like to say that I strongly believe in safety uber alles! Finally, I would like to add just how much I am looking forward to the day when we will have full implementation of the ADS-B system to track all VFR flights. Thank you, comrades.

  20. Tom Martin says:

    DOT keeps working at zero accidents. They will keep after “improvements” in all vehicles until nobody can move. Then there won’t be any accidents.

  21. Frank Giger says:

    I for one welcome our insurance overlords.

    Or not. My homebuilt doesn’t have a transponder or GPS, and my pickup doesn’t have a GPS…and I don’t carry a cell phone. I suppose that makes me a Luddite!

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