Remote-Controlled Repo

Science, technology, and life.
April 3 2009 10:20 AM

Remote-Controlled Repo

Car dealers can now disable your vehicle via satellite if you miss a payment. Is that a bad thing?

Jonathan Welsh explains the technology in the Wall Street Journal . It consists of a "disabler" wired into your ignition, plus an optional "satellite-based locator" that can help repo men find the car. Don Lavoie, president of a company that markets the devices, says sales were up 25 percent last year and are on track to double this year.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Sounds like Big Brother, right? Welsh reports that

consumer-advocacy groups such as the Consumer Federation of America say the devices represent a disturbing new layer of surveillance. ... John Van Alst, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center, calls the practice of remote disabling "electronic repossession" and says it represents a kind of intimidation, as well as creating extra hassles for people who are already financially strapped. "These devices are effective because of the threat they represent," says Mr. Van Alst.

Car dealers and disabler makers answer these charges in three ways. First, you owe them money. If you don't pay it, they have the right to deprive you of what you were paying for. Your car should be like your cell phone: If you stop paying, it stops working.

I like this argument. It's simple. Cars, like phones, can now be wirelessly connected. Why should they be treated differently? No quid, no quo.

Second, when a dealer knows he can shut down your car if you don't pay, he's more willing to let you drive the car off the lot. According to Welsh: "In the past, many dealers weren't willing to take the risk of extending credit to certain customers. But Mr. Lavoie and dealers who have installed his company's disabler say more buyers do pay on time when they have the devices in their cars." As a result, the technology "helps a broader range of customers qualify for loans."

Lavoie is right. This is what too many civil libertarians fail to appreciate about remote surveillance and control: The ability to exert power from a distance reduces the need to exert it up close. And the ability to exert it in the future reduces the need to exert it now. I can let you drive this car off the lot right now because I know that if you don't pay as promised, I can shut it off.

One driver likens her disabler to "those ankle bracelets they put on you when you've done something bad." It's an instructive analogy. GPS ankle bracelets are an alternative to confinement . If we can track you and detain you, we don't have to keep you locked up. The longer the leash, the greater your freedom.

Third, the disabler industry says its technology "helps financially strapped customers change their ways for the better." Lavoie calls it "a behavior-modification method."

Behavior modification? You're going to put a remote-controlled disabler in my car to make me a better person?

If the dealers and device makers were serious about that, you'd have reason to be frightened. Fortunately, they aren't. They don't care whether you're a good person. They don't care whether you kick your dog, cheat on your spouse, or steal from your employer. The only thing they care about is getting your payment on time. That's the beauty of capitalism: It keeps invasive technology in the hands of people who, aside from their self-interest, lack motivation to mess with your life. When the people behind the satellites start caring about your character, that's when it's time to freak out.