Satnav systems could become key elements of modern travel systems as long as the public continues to trust them. But there's the rub. Recent events suggest there's a dark side to these fast-selling gadgets.
For a start, thieves are targeting portable models. They are willing to risk triggering car alarms by breaking and entering a vehicle, simply to snatch a satnav that is clearly visible in its windshield-mounted cradle. Even concealed units are vulnerable if left switched on because smart crooks track them down by using a mobile phone to scan for a tell-tale Bluetooth signal from the hidden device.
Theft of portable devices is bad enough, but the consequences can be far graver for unaware drivers whose cars are equipped with built-in satnavs. South African security company ADT Armed Response has advised its clients to delete their home addresses from their gadgets because the information leads hijackers straight to their residence. The trauma of being hijacked pales in comparison to the shock of finding your home ransacked.
Fortunately, police are just half a step behind criminals and this is indeed the case with satnavs. New Scientist journalist Paul Marks reports this week that forensic scientists working for London's Metropolitan Police are themselves breaking and entering into satnavs, hacking for data that can “help them with their enquiries”, to coin a phrase.
They have found that some satnavs made by TomTom may retain data about journeys and stored addresses. What's more, when a phone has been paired via Bluetooth, the TomTom may also keep a record of the calls made and received, text messages, wireless data settings and the address book from the phone.
This, of course, is very helpful to law enforcers when gathering evidence to protect the innocent and prosecute the guilty. The trouble is that the knowledge of how to do it could also be useful to people with lower motives. Now that the lid has been lifted on how personal information can be extracted from a TomTom, the whole satnav sector has been tarnished a little.
After all, the devices should be adhering to a European Union directive on privacy from 1995, which states that only the minimum personal data required for operation is stored. TomTom's retention of old journey and phone data clearly contravenes the directive and it will be interesting to see if any national data protection officer, or even the European Data Protection Supervisor, investigates further.
Secure your data
Meanwhile, satnav owners should start taking extra precautions, such as using the PIN security function to make it harder for a thief to hack their data. Or use a model that has a removable SD memory card and set that as the location for storing data, taking it with them whenever they get out of the vehicle.
It's clearly time for satnav makers to polish up their act and minimise data retention. It'll make the job harder for police forensics, but at least the privacy of honest customers will be boosted.
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