Driving school

Who owns the driving data? Ola e-scooter crash in Assam sparks privacy controversy

On March 26, a young man in Guwahati, Assam had a rather serious accident while riding his Ola S1 Pro electric scooter. This accident left him with compound fractures in both arms. Her father, Balwant Singh, who also owned the scooter, posted an anguished message on social media accusing Ola of selling him a faulty product and poor customer service. This isn’t the first customer complaint about allegedly poor service from Ola or a host of automakers. What was unique was the way Ola Electric responded to this incident.

On April 22, Ola Electric released a statement on Twitter that detailed how this particular vehicle was driven. He claimed that the scooter was being driven extremely recklessly and that whoever was driving it had engaged Ola’s “Hyper Mode” and hit 115 kilometers per hour, then, just before the accident, had engaged the brakes at background, which in the case of the Ola S1 are not only the disc brakes on the front and rear wheels, but also the regenerative brake which regenerates the energy of the brakes. This led the scooter to go from 80 kilometers per hour to a stop in just three seconds.


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Who owns the data anyway

Before we get to the data aspect, such braking action is extreme and according to Bertrand D’Souza, Editor-in-Chief, Overdrive magazine, an automotive monthly, quite possible on the Ola S1 as on high-performance motorcycles. “But if you’re not prepared for such a violent stopping motion, you could easily be knocked over the handlebars and hurt yourself.” This is what most who have seen the data say happened.

But the release of the data sparked a firestorm involving data privacy advocacy groups, technologists and the auto industry. The fact is that most modern vehicles, including virtually all cars sold in India, except perhaps the cheapest ones, have some sort of telematics solution. Telematics means that data, mainly about driving characteristics and location, is transferred from the vehicle to the car manufacturer and, if the customer wishes, to their smartphone.

These solutions allow customers to know where their vehicles are and how they are being driven. For example, if you let teenagers at home take your car, you can set a geographic limit of 10 kilometers beyond which if the vehicle moves, you receive an alert. The same applies to speed, if the vehicle exceeds a set speed, you receive an alert. You can also keep an eye on your vehicle’s whereabouts, which is useful if you send a driver to pick up your kids from school.

But implicit in all of this is the fact that automakers realize that the data they get belongs to the customer. The engineering manager of a major automaker says the data his team gets is completely anonymized. “I have no idea you ride a certain way, but I can see how my fleet was driven on average. When people were going fast, when people were changing gears. And based on those analyzes of driving I can adjust my gear ratios, my engine performance in future models.However, it admits that somewhere in the system, stored on data servers, is identifiable data for an identification number of particular vehicle (VIN) “If the customer wants their data, they can ask for it. If the authorities get a court order for the data, it’s like getting a court order to access an email account,” admits that person.


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Right to privacy or right to defence?

Nikhil Mehra, a Supreme Court attorney, is rather dry in his assessment of the matter: “I don’t know the details of Ola’s privacy policy, but disclosing such information is not only against the Puttaswamy judgment which upholds the right to privacy but also to the fundamentals of Article 20, sub-clause 3 of the Constitution of India which says that no one can be brought to testify against himself. This driving data does just that, and worse, you’ve made the driver reckless. Balwant Singh, the father of the young man who was involved in the accident, filed an affidavit against Ola. Company officials declined to record their views.

However, Shraddha Deshmukh, another attorney who has combed through Ola’s privacy policy with a fine-toothed comb, argues several things. ”Ola gives all its customers a clear opt-out in the data agreement. Once you have accepted the terms and conditions of the agreement, you are bound by it and part of these terms and conditions includes Ola’s legitimate interests to counter defamatory information which may impact sales . Once you make certain information public, like this gentleman did by going on social media and making accusations against Ola, I think the company is right to enforce his rights. Basically, if Ola was defamed by a faulty account thanks to the fanciful story told by a teenager on a night out, shouldn’t Ola be given the opportunity to defend himself on the same medium? At the same time, Ola Electric noted that all their data is stored in India and used to improve their products.

Mehra and Deshmukh, however, agree on one point – either this case, or a future case with similar dimensions, will be decided by a court, most likely the Supreme Court, and the Puttaswamy judgment will somehow come back. In fact, Judge DY Chandrachud, in his leading opinion on this judgment, had commented on big data and how it could be used by state and non-state actors.

It’s important to note that when a vehicle owner uses connected smartphone apps such as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, it’s not just Maruti or Hyundai that get data, but also Cupertino and Mountain View. And Ola’s fans and critics are also taking it out on social media. Ola fans say the company is right to defend itself, and critics allege Ola is “faking” the data.

But one thing is certain, your car or bike can give you away today and while that might not be a problem now, it’s only going to get trickier. It is hoped that the Data Protection Act in Parliament will recognize this, as will the judiciary, in one way or another.

@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)