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How to properly remove customer data from their connected vehicles

Sunday, July 1, 2018 - 06:00
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A few years ago the vehicle manufacturer I was working for was looking for evidence to support their suspicion a certain employee was taking vehicles home at night without permission.

Sure enough, the GPS system of one particular vehicle had been set to his “Home,” and the “Recently Found” locations stored in the system were places he was known to have visited after work. These two discoveries combined were considered enough to begin “disciplinary proceedings” with the employee.

Thoroughly disconnecting a vehicle from its owner when it changes hands can prevent problems from occurring and also help avoid unwanted costs.

No doubt, vehicles’ onboard computers have long been able to store data such as operating conditions, vehicle speed, engine data and various driver inputs, all of which are commonly used to diagnose drivability concerns and also assist in accident investigations and reconstruction. But these drivability records generally don’t need to be cleared, reset or managed when the vehicle changes hands because there’s pretty much no risk to the customer from this stored information when it comes time to sell or trade in the vehicle.

However, the data stored in vehicles from connecting to a customer’s phone, home and online life is another matter. Not managing this data properly can definitely lead to problems down the road, and depending on who crosses paths with the vehicle and what their intentions are this can lead to big problems indeed, far worse than just suggesting that someone was borrowing a vehicle at night without permission.

Truly “connected”

Many vehicles can and do store sensitive, private information such as passwords for social media sites, voice commands, addresses, phone numbers, photos, music, garage door codes and even more (depending on the vehicle) – all which can lead to problems much worse than the problems that come from losing a wallet or cell phone if the data falls into the wrong hands. And some vehicles will copy and store data from devices they connect to without the customer even being aware that the data was ever copied. Yikes!

Fact is, vehicles are now so “connected” to their owners lives that they need to be actively disconnected, reset, unsubscribed and wiped clean before they change hands to prevent security problems and surprise fees from developing down the road — and also as a courtesy so the new owner can connect to the vehicle themselves without encountering problems from previously stored data. It’s just a smart thing to do.

And simply trusting that the data will be responsibly removed or managed by the next owner and anyone else involved in the resale process (and also assuming that they’ll figure out how to do this) just isn’t enough to prevent problems. Nowadays techs and shop owners need to know how to “disconnect” owners from vehicles to protect their customers from trouble developing later on.

Ensure there are no media devices left plugged into the system, especially in the rear seats and consoles.

Fortunately most customers know they should physically and digitally clear out a vehicle before they part with it, although many are convinced there’s no real threat of problems and also that they’re not worried about people finding out about their lives and habits – hopefully they’re right and they won’t find out the hard way that data can be used for any number of things they may not like. And too, many owners mistakenly believe that their data is safe so long as their phone isn’t actually in the vehicle – which they may learn isn’t always the case at all.

Selling a connected vehicle now can actually be riskier than selling a phone or laptop to a stranger on the Internet and should definitely be treated with equal care and caution.

True, in most cases any data left in a vehicle will be erased by the next owner so they can connect to the vehicle themselves -- but the fact remains that leaving any personal details or passwords (or worse) in a vehicle can lead to issues ranging from strangers having access to the garage through stored door codes (and possibly the rest of the house, depending on the house alarm settings) to being billed for subscriptions to radio and cellular services they no longer use, to strangers meddling in their online life or even worse depending on the how the stored data is used or passed along.

Or someone may just accidentally dial a stored contact number and annoy one of the previous owners’ friends or contacts. Either way, the smart thing to do is to take the steps to disconnect the vehicle thoroughly.

And it’s not hard to do at all.

Disconnecting your customer

3 ways for customers to disconnect from a vehicle

1. Remove all permissions to connect with the vehicle from phones, apps and devices.

2. Cancel any subscriptions to satellite radio, OnStar or the like.

3. Change all passwords immediately.

Most stored data and settings can be cleared or reset directly through the vehicle by navigating through the vehicle’s display screen and selecting the option along the lines of “Settings,” “Configurations,” “Advanced,” or “Options” and then deleting all pairings or data stored. Restoring the factory settings (which erases everything) also works too.

There are a few vehicles that clear connections and data by using specific tricks like pressing and holding certain buttons, removing fuses under certain conditions or even by leaving a door open for an extended period of time. Service information or the owners’ manual should explain how for each specific vehicle if you’re working on -- but if the manual is lost or missing (as happens with used vehicles, especially if they’ve been used as rental or fleet vehicles) searching the Internet for reputable information sites is often a quick way to find time-saving instructions.

However a disconnect is accomplished, remember there are usually multiple ways the customer and the vehicle are connected – not just through the digital screen – and it’s important to disconnect from all of them before trading in the vehicle. But don’t worry, it’s nothing you can’t handle, it’s just a matter of being thorough and patient to make future problems as unlikely as possible. Here’s how to manage some common ones.

Most stored data and settings can be cleared or reset directly by navigating through the display screen and selecting the option something along the lines of “Settings,” “Configurations,” “Advanced,” or “Options” – and then selecting the option to delete pairings or data stored, or even restoring the factory settings (which erases everything). The customer may still need to delete the pairings, permissions and apps from their phones or devices.
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