Think twice about singing in the car the next time you pick up a rental from Hertz. Someone may be watching.
Reports are circulating that Hertz, one of the nation’s largest and most well-known car rental companies, is installing microphones and cameras in the dashboards of its vehicles in what appears to be an effort to keep tabs on customers. A report from Fusion indicates renters are finding the audio and video equipment is installed as a part of the NeverLost navigation platform installed in the company’s vehicles, and they are not happy about it. Several renters apparently took to Google, Yelp, and other websites to voice their frustrations, feeling that their privacy had been violated.
The Fusion article goes on to say that while the NeverLost device has been available in Hertz rentals for some time now, only newer versions — those released after mid-2014 — employ recording devices. According to an email from a Hertz spokesman to Fusion, roughly one-eighth of the company’s rental fleet is outfitted with the newer versions, called NeverLost 6. Still, it’s clear that customers are not happy with the idea that a car rental company could be recording everything they do and say.
@miriamquin Hertz added the camera as a feature of the NeverLost 6 in the event it was decided, in the future, to activate live agent
— Hertz Corporation (@Hertz) March 16, 2015
So, why is Hertz doing this, exactly? So far, the company is sticking to the story that the cameras and microphones are a part of a new service that helps renters in times of distress — think either an emergency, or if there is some sort of mechanical failure. Hertz is also saying that they don’t plan on activating the system as of yet, so there is nothing to worry about. That may be true, but what has people obviously sketched out is that the company didn’t really tell anyone about the cameras and microphones, and in an age where surveillance has become rather commonplace, renters are fearing for their privacy.
Giving Hertz the benefit of the doubt, there is good reason for them to invest in a customer-support system that utilizes audio and video. In a world in which everything is becoming more tightly integrated with the internet and communication technology, you could say that it was only a matter of time before one of the major rental companies took a similar step. Also, the data collected could be valuable in trying to sort out claims issues, insurance settlements, and even act as an incentive for renters to drive as safely as possible.
But, there are still some major issues to be addressed. First off, there’s a question as to the legality of what Hertz is doing. It’s unclear as of right now where the company stands in terms of the law, but precedent is not likely on Hertz’s side. Chevy put a camera in the new Corvette, and then had to tell owners not to use it to monitor valets, for example, due to legal concerns. It’s also generally not considered lawful to record occupants in a rented hotel room. Could a car be considered similar in the eyes of the law?
We’ve also seen a similar legal challenge in another area: rented or borrowed computers. Forbes reported on a case a few years back in which rental company Aaron’s had rented a laptop to a Wyoming couple, and then proceeded to activate the webcam after the couple had missed payments. The employee that did so captured the two having sex on camera, leading to a lawsuit in which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled that rental companies could no longer install and activate software to “spy” on renters.
Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC at the time, expressed his disapproval in a press release. “An agreement to rent a computer doesn’t give a company license to access consumers’ private emails, bank account information, and medical records, or, even worse, webcam photos of people in the privacy of their own homes.”
The question is whether or not this same logic applies to rental cars, and for all intents and purposes, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think it wouldn’t. That’s another hurdle Hertz will need to jump, if it manages to wade through the customer backlash in response to its cameras and microphones being brought to everyone’s attention.
If customers are unwilling to let it slide, Hertz will probably see the results hit its bottom line.