Hertz puts cameras in its rental cars, says it has no plans to use them

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This week I got an angry email from a friend who had just rent­ed a car from Hertz: “Did you know Hertz is putting cam­eras in rental cars!? This is bullsh*t. I won­der if it says they can tape me in my Hertz con­tract.” He sent along this pho­to of a cam­era peep­ing at him from out of his “Nev­er­Lost,” a nav­i­ga­tion­al device that the com­pa­ny has start­ed putting in many of its cars:screen-shot-2015-03-13-at-6-19-14-am

I even felt weird about singing in the car by myself,” he said. A Googling expe­di­tion revealed that my friend was not the first per­son dri­ven to dis­tur­bance by the in-car sur­veil­lance sys­tem. A Yelp user was revved up about it. Dis­grun­tled renters on trav­el forums like Mile­Point and Fly­erTalk want Hertz to put the brakes on “spy cams.” A loy­al Hertz cus­tomer who rent­ed a car in Chica­go said it might make them nev­er want to rent with Hertz again:

The sys­tem can’t be turned off from what I could tell. Fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion revealed that the cam­era can see the entire inside of the car. I know rental car com­pa­nies have been track­ing the speed and move­ments of their vehi­cles for years but putting a cam­era inside the cab­in of the vehi­cle is tak­ing their need for infor­ma­tion a lit­tle TOO FAR. I find this to be com­plete­ly UNACCEPTABLE. In fact, if I get anoth­er car from Hertz with a cam­era in it, I will move our busi­ness from Hertz com­plete­ly.

Hertz has offered the Nev­er­Lost nav­i­ga­tion­al device for years, but it only added the built-in cam­era fea­ture (which includes audio and video) to its lat­est ver­sion of the device — Nev­er­Lost 6 — in mid-2014. “Approx­i­mate­ly a quar­ter of our vehi­cles across the coun­try have a Nev­er­Lost unit and slight­ly more than half of those vehi­cles have the Nev­er­Lost 6 mod­el installed,” Hertz spokesper­son Evelin Imper­a­trice said by email. In oth­er words, one in 8 Hertz cars has a cam­era inside — but Imper­a­trice says that, for now, they are inac­tive. “We do not have ade­quate band­width capa­bil­i­ties to the car to sup­port stream­ing video at this time,” she said.

So why is Hertz creep­ing out cus­tomers with cam­eras it’s not using? “Hertz added the cam­era as a fea­ture of the Nev­er­Lost 6 in the event it was decid­ed, in the future, to acti­vate live agent con­nec­tiv­i­ty to cus­tomers by video. In that plan the cus­tomer would have need­ed to turn on the cam­era by push­ing a but­ton (while sta­tion­ary),” Imper­a­trice explained. “The cam­era fea­ture has not been launched, can­not be oper­at­ed and we have no cur­rent plans to do so.”

The device is often includ­ed as a free perk for Hertz’s “Gold” mem­bers, mean­ing Hertz is tak­ing the risk of creep­ing out its most loy­al cus­tomers with the cam­era eye in the car. When asked whether cus­tomers were informed there would be a cam­era in the car, or told under what cir­cum­stance it would be acti­vat­ed, Imper­a­trice again empha­sized that the cam­eras had nev­er been used. “The cam­era on our Nev­er­Lost 6 devices has nev­er been active (hence, it is nev­er on) and we have no cur­rent plans to acti­vate the cam­era in the future,” she said by email.

hertz-callIn a 2013 blog post titled “Peace of Mind,” a devel­op­er involved in a Hertz hackathon wrote about using the in-car cam­era along with oth­er sen­sors in the car to detect an acci­dent and imme­di­ate­ly get a cus­tomer a new vehi­cle. In the post, he includ­ed two screen shots of a live call, but Hertz spokesper­son Imper­a­trice said every­thing done for the hackathon event was “essen­tial­ly a mock-up.” “Even the video that appears to be from inside the car was not from a Nev­er­Lost,” she said.

Image via tech.jeancarl.com

Image via tech.jeancarl.com

The fea­ture cer­tain­ly makes sense as a cus­tomer ser­vice offer­ing in the event of car trou­bles. It’d be nice to be able to talk to an agent on cam­era after a fend­er-ben­der or while strand­ed on the side of a road. But at the same time, you could imag­ine cam­era mis­sion creep, such as Hertz using it to cap­ture video of what a trou­ble renter is up to in the vehi­cle, or to see who is real­ly dri­ving the car, or to snoop on a singing — or snug­gling — dri­ver. The fact that cus­tomers aren’t noti­fied about the cam­era and when it would be used is trou­bling.

Not noti­fy­ing cus­tomers that they might be on can­did cam­era is gen­er­al­ly frowned upon legal­ly. In 2012, the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion cracked down on a rent-to-own com­pa­ny that failed to warn cus­tomers that it had put spy­ware on their lap­tops so that it could turn on the built-in cam­eras if they failed to make pay­ments. (Dur­ing its inves­ti­ga­tion, the FTC dis­cov­ered the com­pa­ny had tak­en pho­tos of users hav­ing sex.) On the auto­mo­tive front, Chevro­let put a “nan­ny cam” in its new Corvette last year so that para­noid own­ers could mon­i­tor valets, but GM had to imme­di­ate­ly warn new car own­ers not to use the fea­ture because it is is legal­ly prob­lem­at­ic to spy on peo­ple in your car with­out their know­ing about it.

When Hertz put its new Nev­er­Lost tech­nol­o­gy on dis­play at the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show in Las Vegas lat­er year, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive bragged that the device offered “a rich set of ser­vices our com­peti­tors don’t cur­rent­ly have.” Those com­peti­tors may now be glad they don’t have it.