• Dr. Timothy Smith

Rolling Off the Grid

Vintage Car and Girl

Photo Source: Pexels

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

For many Americans, the car embodies our sense of freedom. American car culture has rallied around the open road, and that freedom of the road has underpinned automobile advertising ever since the first automobiles began rolling off of assembly lines over a hundred years ago. The car offers the freedom to travel at one’s own pace and to follow the roads of one’s own choosing. In our cars, we can break the law at any moment with the ever-present choice to push the pedal down, let the engine roar, and break the speed limit. Knowing the possibility of getting a ticket if caught heightens our sense of free will every day. Our cars also serve as a little mobile piece of privacy that acts as an extension of our homes. People sing songs, sneak smokes, eat junk food, make out, have heart-to-heart conversations, and even put on their makeup while driving in their cars. The glass windows of the car reminds us of the limits of that that privacy, but the car provides us with a mobile space of privacy and freedom.

The freedom to go where you want and with your privacy intact has changed significantly with the inclusion of more sophisticated electronics in today’s vehicles. OnStar, available in selected Cadillacs in 1997 and since 2011 available in most General Motors vehicles today connects vehicles’ onboard computers and controls to the computers and service people at OnStar.(GM.com) OnStar offers many features such as GPS navigation, vehicle diagnostics and even emergency assistance if the system detects the car has been in an accident. The safety features provided by OnStar do come at a cost to privacy. The system constantly relays information about your location, the condition of the vehicle, and can even listen in on your conversations in the vehicle. In ”Cartapping: How Feds Have Spied On Connected Cars For 15 Years,” Thomas Fox-Brewster describes a case where a defendant in Ohio accidentally turned on the OnStar emergency button in his car, which turns on two way voice communication with OnStar. The OnStar employee investigating the emergency alert overheard the discussion of a possible drug deal and notified the authorities leading to an arrest for marijuana possession. (Forbes, 2017). A number of legal cases of law enforcement requesting access to vehicle monitoring data continue to challenge the concept of privacy in the courts today. Many companies today provide a system like OnStar as a feature of their new vehicles. Chester Dawson, reporting for the Wall Street Journal, noted in “The Dangers of the Hackable Car” that many processes in vehicles today rely on computers to function. Computers control the braking process, engine ignition, steering, engine function. and more. In cars, the computer controls many previously mechanical or manual processes. Such controls may make a car safer or more efficient, but the car now can be controlled remotely. OnStar can turn off the engine of a car without the permission of the owners. Hackers demonstrated remote control of features such as breaks and door locks. OnStar and the like transmit information but so does the widespread digital radio service Sirius XM, which also serves as a tracking device.

Drivers interested in a car that cannot be tracked or hacked need to look into more vintage vehicles sold before the proliferation of onboard computers and cellular connections. To get an idea about the best cars for electronic privacy, I checked with the doomsday preppers. For those of you who have not heard of doomsday preppers, these individuals prepare for major calamities such as famine, the breakdown of society, nuclear war, and natural disasters like climate-altering volcanic eruptions or meteor strikes. Preppers consider many different scenarios and plan for the best way to survive. Recent automobiles contain sophisticated electronics that not only leave the vehicle vulnerable to tracking and hacking but also vulnerable to damage by strong electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) from major solar storms or a nuclear blast. Only vehicles with manual controls for actions such as braking and shifting without onboard computers would be resistant to such an event because the pulse simply fries the sensitive electronics in a car, rendering them useless. The “Ask a Prepper” website lists ten vehicles they recommend that are capable of withstanding an EMP blast. The recommended vehicles like the many made before the mid-1980s have simple electronics, no onboard computers, and manual controls. Cars such as the Jeep CJ and Cherokee Chief made before 1986 offer rugged construction, four-wheel drive, and wide availability parts. Now, you may not be a prepper, but their vehicles selections cannot be hacked or tracked. Pick one up if you need to feel the freedom of the road.

The open road and our cars mean freedom to many of us. In fact, many consider their car as a little second home where much of their life happens. In that vein, we feel our vehicles also should afford the same privacy protection as our homes, but the introduction of onboard computers and more recently GPS and internet connected using systems like OnStar opened up the once private space of our cars to various types of tracking and surveillance. Beyond surveillance, hackers demonstrated the ability to take control of vehicle controls such as steering and to break remotely. Vintage vehicles built before 1986 with no onboard computers and simpler electronics roll down the road without detection by GPS or internet connected controls and sensors. Get ahold of one of these vintage cars if you truly crave the freedom of the road, but remember that you need turn off and shield your cell phone to keep it from being tracked too.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.