VW wouldn’t locate kidnapped child because his mother didn’t pay for find-my-car subscription

All the harms of surveillance, none of the benefits.

Cory Doctorow
4 min readFeb 28, 2023

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This Thu (Mar 2) I’ll be in Brussels for Antitrust, Regulation and the Political Economy, along with a who’s-who of European and US trustbusters. It’s livestreamed, and both in-person and virtual attendance are free. On Fri (Mar 3), I’ll be in Graz for the Elevate Festival.

The masked car-thieves who stole a Volkswagen SUV in Lake County, IL didn’t know that there was a two-year-old child in the back seat — but that’s no excuse. A violent car-theft has the potential to hurt or kill people, after all.

Likewise, the VW execs who decided to nonconsensually track the location of every driver and sell that data to shady brokers — but to deny car owners access to that data unless they paid for a “find my car” subscription — didn’t foresee that their cheap, bumbling subcontractors would refuse the local sheriff’s pleas to locate the car with the kidnapped toddler.

And yet, here we are. Like most (all?) major car makers, Volkswagen has filled its vehicles with surveillance gear, and has a hot side-hustle as a funnel for the data-brokerage industry.

After the masked man jumped out of a stolen BMW and leapt into the VW SUV to steal it, the child’s mother — who had been occupied bringing her other child inside her home — tried to save her two year old, who was still in the back seat. The thief “battered” her and drove off. She called 911.

The local sheriff called Volkswagen and begged them to track the car. VW refused, citing the fact that the mother had not paid for the $150 find-my-car subscription after the free trial period expired. Eventually, VW relented and called back with the location data — but not until after the stolen car had been found and the child had been retrieved.

Now that this idiotic story is in the news, VW is appropriately contrite. An anonymous company spokesman blamed the incident on “a serious breach” of company policy and threw their subcontractor under the (micro)bus, blaming it on them.

This is truly the worst of all worlds: Volkswagen is a company that has internal capacity to build innovative IT systems. Once upon a time, they had the in-house tech talent to build the “cheat device” behind Dieselgate, the means by which they turned millions of diesel vehicles into rolling gas-chambers, emitting lethal quantities of NOX.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkswagen_emissions_scandal

But on the other hand, VW doesn’t have the internal capacity to operate Car-Net, it’s unimaginatively-named, $150/year location surveillance system. That gets subbed out to a contractor who can’t be relied on to locate a literal kidnapped child.

The IT adventures that car companies get up to give farce a bad name. Ferraris have “anti-tampering” kill-switches that immobilize cars if they suspect a third-party mechanic is working on them. When one of these tripped during a child-seat installation in an underground parking garage, the $500k car locked its transmission and refused to unlock it — and the car was so far underground that its cellular modem couldn’t receive the unlock code, permanently stranding it:

https://pluralistic.net/2020/10/15/expect-the-unexpected/#drm

BMW, meanwhile, is eagerly building out “innovations” like subscription steering-wheel heaters:

https://pluralistic.net/2020/07/02/big-river/#beemers

Big Car has loaded our rides up with so much surveillance gear that they were able to run scare ads opposing Massachusetts’s Right to Repair ballot initiative, warning Bay Staters that if third parties could access the data in their cars, it would lead to their literal murders:

https://pluralistic.net/2020/09/03/rip-david-graeber/#rolling-surveillance-platforms

In short: the automotive sector has filled our cars with surveillance gear, but that data is only reliably available to commercial data-brokers and hackers who breach Big Cars’ massive data repositories. Big Car has the IT capacity to fill our cars with cheat devices — but not the capacity to operate an efficient surveillance system to use in real emergencies. Big Car says that giving you control over your car will result in your murder — but when a child’s life is on the line, they can’t give you access to your own car’s location.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

https://pluralistic.net/2023/02/28/kinderwagen/#worst-timeline

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).

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