PPSA has long warned that most drivers don’t realize that a modern car is a digital recording device. It tracks our travels, call logs, private text messages, even the impression our weight makes on our seat. Our car knows if we’re driving alone or with someone else. In all, a contemporary car accumulates vast amounts of data every day, much of it about us, where we’re going, and sometimes with whom.
Kashmir Hill in a recent New York Times piece described how a car can be turned into a digital weapon by a stalker or abusive partner. In one instance, a woman in divorce proceedings realized that her husband was tracking her through the location-based service in her Mercedes. When the woman visited a male friend, her husband sent the man a message with a thumbs-up emoji.
Another woman, also estranged from her spouse, found that he was remotely causing her parked Tesla to turn on with heat blasting on hot days, and cold air streaming on cold days.
Hill memorably wrote: “A car, to its driver, can feel like a sanctuary. A place to sing favorite songs off key, to cry, to vent or to drive somewhere no one knows you’re going.” That sanctuary, of course, is an illusion. Hill’s piece pointed not just to stalkers, but to the sharing of drivers’ consumer data with insurance companies and car companies.
PPSA has long warned of yet another sinister use of car-generated data. About a dozen federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies make free use of the data broker loophole to purchase consumer data scraped from our apps. There is no law or rule that forbids them from purchasing car-generated data as well. This vulnerability will only get worse if a Congressional mandate for a built-in drunk driver detection system leads to cameras and microphones allowing AI to passively monitor drivers’ movements and speech for signs of impairment.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), have addressed what government can do with car data under proposed legislation, “Closing the Warrantless Digital Car Search Loophole Act.” This bill would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before searching data from any vehicle that does not require a commercial license. Another similar solution for all purchased commercial data is contained in the Protect Liberty and End Warrantless Surveillance Act, which passed the House Judiciary Committee with overwhelming bipartisan support.
The most maddening thing about all this car-generated data is that much of it is off-limits to the drivers themselves, especially if someone else (like an ex-spouse) owns the car’s title. Cars are driving the expectation of privacy off the road. It is time for Congress to act.