If you're looking to rent a car from Hertz, bear in mind that at present, roughly 1 out of 8 cars in Hertz's rental fleet are equipped with dashboard cameras – not outward-facing cameras monitoring the road, but inward-facing cameras capable of making audio and video recordings of everything inside the passenger compartment.
Hertz says it doesn't use the cameras – which it started installing in its cars last summer – and furthermore, the company couldn't use those cameras to spy on customers even if it wanted to, because it doesn't have enough bandwidth to support streaming video anyway. At least, not “at this time.”
The built-in audio-video cameras are part of NeverLost 6, the most-recent version of Hertz' NeverLost navigational system, which Hertz started installing in its vehicles last year.
A Hertz press release from last September talks breathlessly of various customer-convenient features the latest NeverLost offers – GPS, travel guides, weather and flight reports, and the like – but doesn't say a word about cameras or microphones monitoring the insides of passenger compartments.
The problem mostly remained unknown until earlier this month when, in the United Kingdom, a reader sent the following question to the Telegraph's technology-advice columnist, Rick Maybury:
I have just returned from a family holiday to the US and we rented a mid-size car for the duration. Although I declined the GPS option, I prefer to use my own, a unit was fitted in the car. The rental car assistant was adamant that all cars had them now, and I only had to pay for it if I used it. It turned out be an absolute pest and even though I switched it off, it came back on every time I started the engine with an annoying jungle. If it was left switched on it displayed adverts. It also had what looked suspiciously like a camera fitted to the top of the screen. Were they spying on me, and for future reference, is there a way to switch these things off, permanently?
Maybury identified the system as a NeverLost and confirmed that recent models “do indeed have built-in cameras, pointing at the vehicle cabin,” but supposedly, these cameras will only be used “for video chats with rental company reps, should you seek assistance.”
The issue got more attention in the U.S. when Fusion.net writer Kashmir Hill got an angry email (and creepy photo) from a friend who'd rented a Hertz car and saw what looked like an in-dash camera eye staring back at him. She found a handful of similar complaints online here and there, on Yelp and various travelers' chat forums.
After publishing these claims, Fusion got an email from an anonymous source, using a disposable burner email account, who claimed to have worked on developing the NeverLost technology. He said that the cameras were equipped with certain features to protect the privacy of Hertz customers.
There are two privacy features protecting the user. The first, is the cool electronically blacked out glass. It turns clear when the camera is in use, so if you cannot see the camera it cannot see you. The second feature is the turret that the camera is mounted in. When you turn the knob on the top to the off position the camera is facing the side of the unit behind a shutter and cannot see out the window.
It appears that [Hertz] have shot themselves in the foot with the blacked out glass not allowing the user to see that there is a physical barrier preventing someone from watching you.
Of course, an anonymous quote from a burner email address might not be a reliable source of information – except that Hertz's head of communications confirmed to Fusion that the NeverLost 6 cameras really do have this feature:
Rich Broome, the head of communications for Hertz, confirmed this week that the cameras in the NeverLost 6 devices have these protections built in. In an interview, Broome emphasized again that the cameras haven’t been used thus far, and could only be used if Hertz rolled out a software update to the NeverLost 6 devices that activated the cameras—which explains why Hertz hasn’t announced anything about the cameras yet. “It would be confusing to talk to customers about something they can’t currently use about which no decision has been made to even activate,” said Broome by phone.
So the cameras haven't even been activated yet, and furthermore you supposedly can't even see them otherwise because of that “cool electronically blacked out glass” – though Fusion's photograph of the NeverLost 6 does, apparently, show a camera eye above the electronic screen.
However, Hertz spokesperson Evelin Imperatrice told Fusion in an email that the NeverLost 6 cameras are inactive and that “We do not have adequate bandwidth capabilities to the car to support streaming video at this time.”
Broome also confirmed that the cameras are intended to only be used if customers want to have video chats with Hertz agents, and said that Hertz hasn't received any complaints about the cameras since it first started installing them.
For what it's worth: here at ConsumerAffairs, we currently have 896 different reviews about Hertz available online, and none of those complaints say anything about the cameras, either. There are complaints about bad customer service or poorly working cars, and many complaints about the company putting unauthorized overcharges on customers' credit cards, but as of March 17 there are no complaints about cameras.
Was that because nobody minds the cameras, or because nobody knew about them?
Good question. Meanwhile, Rich Broome says that if Hertz customers are really bothered by the cameras they can rent a Hertz vehicle without one: “It’s a legitimate concern but we hadn’t heard this from customers before your article. … If people are renting a car with a camera and they are really concerned about privacy, we can put them in a different car. We don’t want customers to feel watched when they’re in the car.”