British publication The Sun, a sometimes terrible and occasionally entertaining tabloid across the pond, is reporting that concerns are boiling among human rights groups, former government ministers, and some legal experts about Mercedes-Benz using vehicle location data to track down customers who default on their finance program payments.
To be clear, in the written terms and conditions of the Mercedes-Benz financial agreement for vehicle loans in the UK, it’s apparently spelled out in bold text exactly how the automaker can use location data for finding a vehicle when the owner is in breach of their financial agreement. But apparently that’s not enough, and the allegedly rare occurrence of the carmaker tracking people down is enough to upset some people and stoke fears of too much corporate oversight and nuisance in peoples’ lives.
From The Sun:
Ex-Cabinet minister David Davis today called for the Government to investigate.
He added: “This is not the first time big business has behaved like Big Brother — but it’s rare to be quite as deceitful as this.
“I have to question whether it is even legal to pass on information to other people such as bailiffs.
“I would think the relevant minister ought to look very closely at the legality of this procedure.”
Human rights group Liberty said Mercedes’ actions were disturbing and part of the “creeping growth of surveillance”.
Legal experts also raised concerns. Stefano Ruis, civil law partner at Hickman & Rose solicitors, said: “This appears to be another worrying development in the way companies handle what should be private, personal data.
“Modern technology means our ability to keep personal information private is under threat like never before.
“Organisations that handle personal data need to be completely upfront about what they are doing. That Mercedes appear not to have been so in this case is concerning. Its customers may start to worry about what other personal information the company may be gathering, then passing on.”
A Mercedes-Benz spokesperson sent Jalopnik the following response to the Sun article:
We do not use a tracking device.
Connectivity services are an essential element of modern cars. They increase safety and comfort. Location based services are part of that connectivity for example to provide traffic services or locating a car in case of an emergency.
As a rule, Mercedes-Benz does not track drivers.
We place great importance on the responsible and transparent use of customer data. The customer determines which services he wants to use and which data he wants to pass on - either by consent, by contract or at the push of a button. We also inform our customers about the so-called repossession process when they apply for finance through Mercedes-Benz Financial Services. In this case, they sign a contract and agree to the use of the car’s location in the event they default or breach their finance agreement.
This repossession process is used in a few exceptional cases and only as a last resort, when customers default or breach their finance agreement and repeatedly fail requests to return their vehicle. We also want to emphasize that this does not mean constant tracking.
The Sun points out that “an estimated 80 percent” of the company’s sales in the UK include some kind of financial service plan, which probably makes Mercedes a little nervous about taking care of a bunch of cars that are inevitably going to return to them.
On the one hand, the technicalities show Mercedes-Benz hasn’t done anything legally dubious here. While it is illegal in the European Union to track a vehicle without the driver knowing, in theory, whoever signed the finance contract knowingly signed away the right to be located. If they aren’t making their payments, well, it makes sense that Mercedes wouldn’t want to keep loaning them the car.
But at the same time, it is a little harrowing knowing that someone could always track your car down at any given time. We all fear being mistakenly accused of something we didn’t do, or sometimes money gets a little tight and it’s hard to make a single payment or two. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so easy for a company to be able to track—and punish—its customers with little oversight from any other party.
And of course, more often than not this sort of technology has an exponentially greater impact on poorer individuals. Keep in mind that in Europe, many Mercedes models are stripped down, more affordable versions of the cars we get over here, and not all luxury behemoths. A sudden job loss and a tough employment market could trap somebody in a circle of misfortune, especially once you take their car away.
There’s already invasive tech installed on cars to lock drivers out in the event on nonpayment. Even that is a more secure approach to ensuring payment, without having to track someone down and take away their vehicle. But for those genuinely trying to make ends meet, losing their car in the middle of a job hunt would be catastrophic.
These are all ethical questions about modern technology that we probably should have sorted out when web connectivity really started to take off, but now we all find ourselves caught in our own web of devices that are constantly pinging our every move.
For now, we’re trusting Mercedes-Benz to self-police what it does with customer data, and right now its claiming to only be utilized on an extremely limited basis. But if the contract is already signed and Mercedes changes its mind and decides to start selling that data to someone else, how will we find out? And then what can we do about it?
Just do your best to make your payments, I guess. And don’t lease a Mercedes if you are at high risk of suffering a repossession. I’m personally comforted knowing that no matter where I go, somebody can probably find me. What if I get lost?