Future Tense

Waymo Wants You to Know It Has No Interest in Your Data

But is that a promise it can keep?

Photo illustration: a Waymo car against an illustrated example of binary.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images and Waymo.

For more than a decade, many people were perfectly happy to hand their data over to any company that promised to connect them to friends or tell them what Friends character they most resembled. But in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, many tech companies are now keen to reassure users that they are not in it for their information. In an interview with Recode and MSNBC, Apple CEO Tim Cook criticized Facebook for its business model, bragging that Apple gets by on its products, not customer data.

Now the executive at a leading self-driving car company is trying to assure consumers that it isn’t interested in their delicious, delicious data. The Telegraph reports:

Google has “no master plan” to ­harvest the mass of data that will be generated by its self-driving cars arm.

The assurance from John Krafcik, the chief executive of Waymo, comes in the wake of the Facebook scandal, where millions of users’ details were shared with other businesses.

Mr Krafcik said access to the ­information generated by those travelling in cars using Waymo’s autonomous driving technology was not a priority for the company, which is owned by Google parent, Alphabet.

“Our aim is moving people around the world and that is very hard,” he said, speaking at the New York Auto Show the day after the company revealed a partnership with Jaguar to use tens of thousands of the British ­company’s I-Pace electric cars. 

“To the core of my body, I swear on my father’s grave, it’s not a priority,“ Mr Krafcik said. “ I’m not saying it won’t be a workstream in the future but at the moment it is not in our workspace.”

Pressed for assurances that the company was not working on gathering data from its driverless car programme, the former Ford and Hyundai ­executive said the amount of work on data ­gathering was “zero, a big zero”.

Waymo just wants to sell you a car, OK?

The Telegraph doesn’t report the exact wording of the questions that led to these statements, and neither Waymo nor the New York Auto Show responded to Slate’s requests for more information about the exchange. But it seems clear that Krafcik’s statements come in response to the current moment of Facebook-induced privacy panic, in which tech companies are suddenly keen to reassure the public that they, unlike Zuckerberg’s company, do not exist primarily to leech the souls (and thoughts and needs and biases) of unsuspecting users. Data? What’s that?

Call me a big data apologist, but Waymo (or Uber, or whoever wins this self-driving car race) should collect a reasonable amount of data in order to improve its autonomously driving service—and it shouldn’t shy away from that. Uber has faced criticism in the past for invasive data collection—including how long it tracks riders after the conclusion of their rides—and has amended its location-tracking accordingly, but it does still gather and use aggregated information like journey times, traffic, and demand to adjust fares, predict wait times, and determine better routes. In other words, things that improve their service. If Waymo were to collect info on journey times and traffic that might increase safety or decrease commutes for other users, would that be such a bad thing? It seems likely that Waymo will collect such useful information—it would be negligent not to!

And it’s obviously not unreasonable to be skeptical of a data juggernaut like Google’s motivations for building people-moving technology. But for Waymo to so vehemently deny that data gathering is on its radar (“zero, a big zero”) seems like an overcorrection to this Facebook freakout—not to mention an overpromise coming from a sibling to Google.

We can (probably) believe the CEO when he says Waymo isn’t working on plans for what to do with the massive sets of data its cars will have the power to collect. (He did swear on his father’s grave that it wasn’t a current priority.) But ruling it out entirely seems dramatic, an arguably unnecessary promise that could be hard to keep. Perhaps Krafcik was just trying to suggest that the company’s self-driving cars don’t intend to market you fast food based on all those drive-thrus the vehicle knows you frequent. But then we need clarity on what, exactly, Krafcik was vowing not to collect.

Though privacy is the word on everyone’s lips, it’s not as if surveillance is currently the most pressing concern regarding autonomous driving technology. It comes at a moment when the most urgent concern surrounding self-driving cars is safety, not privacy, with two autonomous driving fatalities in the past two weeks, one for Uber and one for Tesla. In the case of self-driving cars, it seems privacy anxiety has collided with safety fears to create one giant techno-moral panic storm.

Privacy panics are not an uncommon during the introduction of new technology. In an Information Technology and Innovation Foundation report, “The Privacy Panic Cycle,” Daniel Castro and Alan McQuinn argue that “privacy fundamentalists” cause undue panic to creep into the public consciousness before people understand or appreciate the convenience (or at least accept the tradeoff) of a new technology. Privacy concerns have sprung up and abated over the years around portable cameras, transistors, Google Street View, and now, connected vehicles.

Admittedly, the Cambridge Analytica outrage is not just limited to privacy fundamentalists: Many who have never given their FarmVille usage a second thought are now paying attention to their data. But are we in the middle of a deep privacy reckoning (a “data” turning point) or a micropanic, inflated by ongoing Trump victory angst? A recent poll shows that while people say they distrust Facebook, very few consumers care enough about their own privacy to do anything about it. People continue to use Uber despite concerns, and have accepted smart devices into their homes with open arms.

OK, Google. You’re not currently working on an autonomous vehicle data-mining masterplan. Just don’t make promises you can’t keep.