Eventually I want to write a separate post on why mass surveillance is stupid, dangerous, and incompatible with democracy. For those that read my blog, I’m probably preaching to the choir though. I’m going to write the rest of this post assuming the reader already understands why mass surveillance is bad, or at least sees how it could be. If you don’t understand why massive government surveillance is a problem, you think that “privacy is dead”, or “I have nothing to hide” comes to mind, you should do more research on mass surveillance before continuing. With that, I’ll continue.
Electric Vehicle Charging Stations
EV charging stations are worse for your privacy than gas stations. With gas stations, you can pay anonymously in cash. No form of ID is necessary. While you can pay with a credit card, it’s not necessary. EV charging stations don’t allow you to pay in cash. At a minimum, there is a record of your credit card transaction to the charging network. Also, due to the swipe card you have to use for the charging station, every single charge is tied to your real identity. This means the network (Chargepoint) creates an extensive dossier on everywhere you’ve been and sells that information to data brokers. You must agree to all this or you can’t even use the charging station. You can still charge your electric vehicle at home or at non-networked charging stations, but non-networked stations are far less common than networked ones. So if your EV doesn’t have much range or you are in a rural area, you’ll definitely be going out of your way to avoid the networked stations. The only way around this is reverting back to using a gas station, if you have a hybrid car. If you have a fully electric vehicle, then you’re just out of luck.
The Infrastructure of Surveillance
The bad news is the worst is still yet to come. There’s not a huge opposition to networked charging stations and the issue is even lesser known than that of mass surveillance. And in the United States, if EVs are the way of the future and demand increases for them, there will need to be many more charging stations than there are now. This is bad because it’s almost certain that these new charging stations are going to be proprietary and networked, selling customer data. It will become increasingly difficult to resist the privacy invasion of our location data once the infrastructure is already in place. What are you going to do, not charge your car? Once infrastructure is already paid for, there needs to be a very strong incentive to change it. The best course of action now is to oppose the networked charging stations before they are deployed and avoid using them, even if it’s inconvenient. That’s because most of the charging stations that are going to be deployed have not yet been deployed. So, there’s still time to stop the surveillance infrastructure before it expands.
How to Fight Back
If your school or workplace wants to install a networked charging station, tell them you oppose this decision and would instead be in favor of a more privacy-respecting option such as a non-networked station. If you own an EV yourself, tell them that you will refuse to use the networked charging station because you don’t want to encourage proprietary surveillance infrastructure. You could also stick fliers on the networked charging stations calling for EV drivers not to use the networked stations, or at least to become informed about the problem and organize. Chargepoint puts out their own propaganda trying to spin the surveillance off as a good thing, a myth we must dispel. The fact is all of the items on their list are doable with non-networked charging stations running free software. If you want analytics or access controls, you could imagine a cryptographic system that uses secure private tokens to protect EV driver privacy while also making analytics possible without any sign up or extra hassle to the driver. Proprietary charging station phone apps could also be avoided and replaced with free software alternatives.
Vulnerabilities in networked charging stations have been found in the past. As everyone should know, any time there is a database containing personal data, it becomes the target of hackers. The only way to completely prevent data from being stolen or leaked in the long run is by not collecting the data in the first place. Luckily with EV charging stations, storing location data is completely unnecessary. With enough public pressure we can just do away with it entirely. We just have to show that privacy is the priority.
When I was attending SIUe, I emailed the parking services staff in October of 2019 about the privacy concerns I had about the new Chargepoint stations that were being installed and encouraged them to install a non-networked station instead. The reply explained that while they understood my concerns, Chargepoint is what all the public universities in Illinois are using and they determined that it would be in the best interest of their constituents to install it. I was not able to change their decision, but I got the parking services staff to at least think about the issue because a well thought-out critique demands a well thought-out response. I don’t want to see the United States turning into a nightmarish big brother surveillance hellscape where privacy is impossible and the government has such strong surveillance capability on everyone that it’s “turnkey tyranny”, as Snowden would say. Networked charging stations are one step closer to that bleak reality. Don’t doubt for a second that the government can access EV charging station location data from networked charging stations. They absolutely can. Collecting the locations on millions of law-abiding citizens is a capability no government or private entity should be allowed have. Of course companies and governments get the same location data through smartphones anyway, but that must end too. One injustice doesn’t justify another. That just means we have more work to do.
National Security and Privacy
In a democracy, the people have the power to self-govern. Democracy is incompatible with mass government surveillance in the long term. What you have to realize is mass corporate surveillance is mass government surveillance. In the United States, the federal government has the authority to force companies to turn over customer data and then not tell customers about it. The data collection and analysis often happens automatically. It is impossible to meaningfully oppose a government that has near omniscience about the entire population. All it takes is one competent, evil politician to convert a heavily surveilled democracy into a dictatorship. Obviously, networked charging stations aren’t going to do that on their own. But they are a stepping stone on a path whose destination is nigh-impossible to pull back from. Worse, foreign governments can purchase and use this location information on high-profile individuals driving electric vehicles to gain influence. Massive data collection of Americans’ location is not only incompatible with American democracy by giving government far too much power (knowledge is power), but it’s also a national security threat. The very existence of a database with real-time location data points on millions of Americans is a national security threat because foreign governments and hackers will find a way to get access. The only full solution is to make sure the data is never collected in the first place, by opposing networked charging stations and organizing and informing EV drivers around the issue.