April 29, 2011 at 3:10 PM ET
As if you're not already paranoid about where your digital footprint ends up, now even your dedicated navigation device may be working against you: GPS maker TomTom admitted it gave driving data to local and regional governments, which then used the information to set up speed traps.
This happened in the Netherlands, where police used historical speed data supplied by TomTom to nab motorists who put a little too much pedal to the metal, as reported by Dutch press (via The Register). The police used the information to zero in on stretches of road where drivers took a more Autobahn approach to the speed limit.
The Associated Press reported that an email apology from TomTom CEO Harold Goddijn to customers: "We never foresaw this kind of use and many of our clients are not happy about it," he wrote, and promised them that licensing agreements would "prevent this type of use in the future."
Hear more from him in this video, in which he makes the case for why sharing information with the powers that be is so important — but why the company did not like what happened in the Netherlands, and that at no point were individuals' privacy compromised.
In a statement given to us by TomTom, Goddjin added:
We are now aware that the police have used traffic information that you have helped to create to place speed cameras at dangerous locations where the average speed is higher than the legally allowed speed limit. We are aware a lot of our customers do not like the idea and we will look at if we should allow this type of usage.
As with the mobile phone location-based brouhaha, it turns out that customers absently gave their permission to TomTom to have that information, which the company said is vital to creating up-to-date routes and guidance. Goddjin says so in his statement to us:
When you use one of our products we ask for your permission to collect travel time information on an anonymous basis. The vast majority of you do indeed grant us that permission. When you connect your TomTom to a computer we aggregate this information and use it for a variety of applications, most importantly to create high quality traffic information and to route you around traffic jams.
But here's the kicker: they've also been sharing that info with "local governments and authorities."
It helps them to better understand where congestion takes place, where to build new roads and how to make roads safer.
We are actively promoting the use of this information because we believe we can help make roads safer and less congested.
Goddjin rationalizes the company's information gathering by saying customers "can opt in or opt out and can disable the data collection function at any time," and that the traffic data is anonymous.
"We can never trace it back to you or your device. We turn anonymous data into traffic information to give you the fastest route available and route you through traffic jams in real time. We are working with road authorities around the world to use anonymous traffic information to help make roads flow more efficiently and safer."
According to the AP, TomTom NV is Europe's largest navigation device maker.
Tim Roper, president of TomTom, Inc., said that the company licenses "anonymous and aggregated data (average speeds per road segments) to a third party (VIA.nl). They have combined our data with traffic accident data in a traffic safety application. This application has been licensed by VIA to cities and governments in the Netherlands."
It has now become clear that these local governments have either reported dangerous spots to the police after analysis and/or have given police access to the application. Police have used this information for law enforcement measurements at dangerous spots among which are mobile speed traps.
Now that we know this is possible, we will restrict this kind of use by the police in our license agreements.
In the wake of recent corporate screwups, such as Apple's cellphone tracking "bug" and the Sony PlayStation Network hack, the timing for TomTom's misuse of user data couldn't have been worse.