Hop in the car, go to the store, do some shopping and return home.

As Seinfeld would say, that's just a show about nothing, right?

Not exactly true. From the moment you entered your car, then shopped to shop at the store, data about your personal habits was being mined and recorded.

Your car might be your legal property but a new report reveals that most cars on the road now carry a small box about the size of of a deck of cards under the dashboard. The device, called an event data recorder, is part of a car's electronic system and is almost impossible to remove. It is the only part of your car that you don't really own.

American car makers, led by GM and Ford, have been putting them in cars since the mid-1990s in order to assess the performance of their vehicles. Ninety six percent of new cars already have them, as do at least 150 million older vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Administration wants the technology standard in all vehicles sold in the U.S by next year.

According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based consumer group, the car computers are capable of collecting massive amounts of data. The box tracks your seat belt use, speed, steering, braking and at least a dozen other bits of data. When the air bag deploys, it records a few seconds before, during and after a crash, much like an airliner's black box.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration first proposed regulating black boxes in 2006, but rejected calls for pre-purchase disclosure, opting instead to just include a few paragraphs in the owner's manual. The NHTSA says it has no authority to regulate privacy but it has not sought any legislation from government officials to provide guidelines over how the data should be used.

The mined data can be used against car owners to find fault in accidents or in criminal investigations. Fourteen states have laws that allow third parties such as law enforcement agencies, lawyers involved in criminal or civil suits and insurance companies to access the information with a warrant.

Don't think you'll be able to escape the data mining in your car by ducking into a store at the mall. Some of the bigger retail stores are experimenting with video surveillance and cell phone signals to watch and gather data about shopping behaviors. Beware of that lifeless mannequin - he just might be watching the way you shop!

With the surveillance technology, retailers can tell your gender and age bracket, what stores you visited, how many minutes you spent in a certain aisle and whether or not you looked at the merchandise on display.

The store can also recognize returning shoppers, because mobile devices send unique identification codes when they search for networks. That means stores can now tell the average time between visits. One defender said by using the data to retailers and manufacturers, they can customize and design the stores and the shelves and the products to match what shoppers are interest in purchasing.

The new software technology was initially created to monitor the elderly and disabled in their homes. Data collection companies, called data aggregators, have been gathering information on us for years and today it's a multi-billion dollar industry.

Many feel that this, however, is just another way for governments and companies to gain access to our private information.

By Jim Zbick

editor@tnonline.com