Mercedes-Benz is using location censors to track and repossess vehicles in the United Kingdom when drivers fall behind on payments, raising privacy concerns and leading one prominent politician to call for a government investigation.
Location sensors are fitted to most new vehicles in Europe, and used in the event of a crash. But the German luxury brand has at times activated trackers to help it find and repossess cars.
A spokeswoman for Mercedes, which is owned by Daimler, told CNN Business that drivers agree to tracking when they sign financing agreements with the carmaker, and that action is taken to locate a car only if the terms of the contract are breached by customers.
“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,” the spokeswoman said. “We also want to emphasize that this does not mean constant tracking.”
The use of tracking, which was first reported by UK newspaper The Sun, set off a debate about privacy. One former British cabinet minister, David Davis, questioned the use of the sensors. In comments confirmed to CNN Business by his office, he urged the government to look into the matter.
Hannah Couchman, a policy and campaigns officer at human rights organization Liberty, said that surveillance by corporations was problematic and that “enabling companies to track their customers is yet another threat to our privacy.”
“This creeping growth of surveillance in the private sector is particularly disturbing when customers have no idea they are being tracked in this way,” she said. “There is also a risk that this information could be exploited or hacked.”
As of March 2018 all new cars and light vans produced in the European Union have to be fitted with eCall — a device which can transmit data, including a vehicle’s location, to emergency services in the event of a crash.
The European Parliament stipulated that the automatic call would give the emergency services “only basic minimum data, such as the type of vehicle, the fuel used, the time of the accident, the exact location and the number of passengers,” and that the system remains dormant until a serious accident occurs.
Other global carmakers did not immediately respond to requests for information about their tracking policies.
“While what Mercedes are doing is technically legal, it belies a deeper problem that motorists are under ever increasing levels of surveillance,” Christopher Weatherhead, technology lead for Privacy International, told CNN Business.