Senators urge Ottawa to protect driverless car users from hackers

A Senate committee is warning the government that it’s not prepared for the rise of driverless vehicles and needs to be better prepared to protect Canadians’ personal information from hackers and advertisers.

Senate committee warns that owners of the technology could sell driving habits for a profit

A Senate report recommends giving Canada's federal cybersecurity officials a bigger role over protecting the new technology from hackers. (Associated Press)

A Senate committee is warning the government that it's not ready for the rise of driverless vehicles and needs to be better prepared to protect Canadians' personal information from hackers and advertisers.

In a 78-page report released Monday, the committee laid out 16 recommendations touching on road safety, cybersecurity and expected job losses as automated and connected vehicles (cars that sync to the internet) become more popular.

The report is meant to guide the Liberal government, which is crafting regulations around self-driving cars.

The committee warned the government to be proactive on the looming issue, or risk playing catch up like most cities had to do with the ride-sharing app Uber.

Liberal Sen. Dennis Dawson, a co-chair on the committee, said the "brilliant" and convenient technology comes with consequences.

The committee heard from close to 60 witnesses, including police, automakers, industry stakeholders and the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

"The owners and operators of this technology can track your activities, your driving habits and see where you've been," Dawson said. "We already know many social media companies monetize users by selling their data. What is to stop developers of this technology with cars from doing the same?"

Among its 16 recommendations, the Senate committee recommended introducing legislation to give the privacy commissioner more control over how companies use drivers' information.

The committee also heard testimony from experts warning about malicious cyber attacks.

"We don't want people to be able to take control of their cars through computers. We'll have to start thinking about that," said Dawson.

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Scott Jones, deputy chief of IT security for the Communications Security Establishment, testified that automated and connected vehicles risk could make Canadians more vulnerable to cyber threats from nation states, criminals, terrorists and hackers seeking to exploit those same technologies.

Job losses flagged

"The motivations of these cyber actors vary widely, from financial gain and creating havoc to just doing it because they can," he said.

The committee urged the federal transport and public safety departments work with the Communications Security Establishment on cybersecurity guidelines to protect the emerging technology from hackers.

It also flagged 1.1 million potential job losses, mainly for people in the trucking and taxi business. It even warned health care professionals and lawyers could see business dip due to fewer collisions.

The report called on the federal government to work with the provinces and territories to strengthen retraining, skills upgrading and employment support for affected Canadians.

Timeline uncertain in snowy Canada

But it's not all doom and gloom.

The committee was encouraged by the potential good of automated vehicles, noting "the nearly 1,700 road deaths and 117,000 injuries that occurred in 2015 because of human error [could] become grim relics of a primitive past."

The Conference Board of Canada estimates automated cars could bring in $65 billion per year in economic benefits from collision avoidance, fuel costs savings and heightened productivity.

Some witnesses who presented to the Senate committee suggested Canada might lag behind other parts of the world in adopting driverless cars because of the effect of ice and snow on the technology's sensors. (Julia Wang/Waymo via Associated Press)

They could also help seniors and people with disabilities get around more easily, the report noted.

Some of the witnesses predicted Canada could see fleets of driverless cars in the next decade. Others pointed out, however, that parts of Canada could lag behind the rest of the world due because ice and snow could affect the automated vehicles' sensors.

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau is meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts in Ottawa Monday.

He said the government will present a plan in the coming months dealing with the use of automated vehicles on Canadian roads.

"On behalf of the Government of Canada, we thank the Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications for this important report," he said in a statement. "The findings and recommendations will guide our ongoing work on this emerging technology, including on the development of regulations and standards for the safe use of these vehicles in Canada."