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Hertz installs cameras and microphones in rental cars

Technically Incorrect: Some of Hertz's NeverLost systems now have cameras and mics -- which the company claims it doesn't intend to use at this time.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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Yes, but will your journey be on camera? Hertz/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

It seems that Hertz has gone all Avis and is suddenly trying harder.

The only question is, what is it trying harder to do?

The company has been installing cameras and microphones in its NeverLost navigational systems. They're not in all Hertz rental cars. They're only in the NeverLost 6 version, introduced last year. But clearly the presence of them might make one or two drivers wonder about their capabilities.

At the beginning of this month, the Telegraph made note of these cameras -- which point toward the driver -- and the reality that they can't be removed.

Drivers were becoming suspicious that they could be -- or even were being -- spied upon. Clearly, in some US states this might not be legal. However, surveillance has become such an all-embracing reality that some people are wondering where it's going to stop and how you can make it stop.

A report in Fusion added to the consternation. Hertz told Fusion that around one out of every eight of its cars had the cameras installed. But no, no, the company wasn't actually going to use them.

Was this because it sensed that this might be seen as a painful intrusion? Not quite. A Hertz spokeswoman told Fusion: "We do not have adequate bandwidth capabilities to the car to support streaming video at this time."

So it's only the tech that's holding Hertz back from keep tabs on its renters?

Hertz spokeswoman Evelin Imperatrice told me: "The cameras in NeverLost 6 units aren't functional and cannot be turned on under any circumstances, by either renters or by the company. When we chose the new hardware device for NeverLost 6, we included a camera option in the event that a video conferencing function might be a useful, future application that renters would welcome."

Is it only about renters welcoming it, though?

Imperatrice insisted: "We have always intended that the video conferencing function -- like our rental kiosks which have video conferencing capability -- could only be activated by renters at their sole discretion if, for example they were lost, in an accident, or their vehicle broke down and they preferred to interact with a Hertz employee through live video chat."

But could Hertz employees one day activate the cameras? Might the technology already be at hand to do that?

Imperatrice was adamant: "Hertz does not have the technology to support an in-car video conference service, and we have no timetable to develop or acquire this technology."

'A complete turnoff!'

On its Twitter feed, meanwhile, Hertz has been trying to answer questions from concerned customers. The answers, however, still leave something in the air.

For example, a Twitterer called @miriamquin noted: "News about spying cameras in car rentals a complete turnoff! I will never rent a car from Hertz."

To which Hertz replied: "Hertz added the camera as a feature of the NeverLost 6 in the event it was decided, in the future, to activate live agent." To the concerned, that is hardly a complete reassurance.

However, Imperatrice confirmed to me that customers didn't have to tolerate the cameras' presence. She said: "While the camera function doesn't work, we are happy to provide customers with a different vehicle if they are nevertheless uncomfortable with the NeverLost unit in their rental car."

Such cameras may reflect the result of customers' craving for ever-greater ease and convenience. The recent furor over Samsung's Smart TVs being able to listen into your living room conversations shows that there are concerns about just what might be heard and even seen.

It's likely that the Hertz system has similarities with Amazon Kindle's live helper.

However, in these days of marginal paranoia, it's easy to imagine that Hertz's cameras and microphones could record drivers performing in ways that don't suit the company.

Oh, look, Mabel. This one's controlling the steering wheel with his thighs. And he's just got takeout from Carl's Jr.

And what if the driver who signed the rental papers isn't the one driving?

That's not Richard Sherborne, is it, Mabel? Not unless he's bought himself a pearl necklace and a tiny skirt.

Hertz could, at least in theory, sanction drivers who break its rules or who are inattentive -- those who drive and talk on phones in states where that is banned, for example.

With any technology, those who create it and those who install it will always focus on the benefits. Equally, though, there's the temptation to use the technical abilities for ends that don't necessarily reflect liberty for all.

Or will there come a point that we become so used to being watched and listened to that we limit our behavior accordingly?

Updated March 17 at 7:42 a.m. PT: Added comment from Hertz.