Saturday, May 15, 2021

MCN/USA TODAY NETWORK: Is your car spying on you?

Matthew T. Mangino
May 14, 2021

Your car is spying on you. Most late model vehicles have the ability to log speed, when and where a vehicle’s lights are turned on, which doors are opened and closed at specific locations as well as gear shifts, odometer readings, ignition cycles - and that is only the tip of the iceberg.

As the U.S. Supreme Court has extended protections to the privacy of your smartphone, your car has unexpectedly become a safe haven for law enforcement to access your personal information without a warrant.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Carpenter v. United States, that the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, protects cell phone location information. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court recognized that location information - collected by cell providers creates a “detailed chronicle of a person’s physical presence compiled every day, every moment over years.”

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, perhaps the most significant part of the ruling is its explicit recognition that individuals can maintain an expectation of privacy in information that they provide to third parties. As a result of what has become a landmark decision the police must now get a warrant before obtaining cell phone data.

However, when a smartphone is plugged into a vehicle’s USB port to make a call or listen to music all that precious personal data is downloaded into the vehicle.

The Intercept recently reported on a 2015 podcast of “The Forensic Lunch,” wherein Ben LeMere the founder of Berla, a company that manufactures vehicle forensic kits, talked about the accidental data transfer unbeknownst to the vehicle owner or operator.

“Your phone died, you’re gonna get in the car, plug it in, and there’s going to be this nice convenient USB port for you,” LeMere said. “When you plug it into this USB port, it’s going to charge your phone, absolutely. And as soon as it powers up, it’s going to start sucking all your data down into the car.”

The Fourth Amendment may afford individuals some protection from invasive searches of a personal vehicle. However, that may not protect you while on vacation or traveling for business.

In the same podcast, as reported by The Intercept, LeMere discussed pulling data from a rental car, “We had a Ford Explorer ... we pulled the system out, and we recovered 70 phones that had been connected to it. All of their call logs, their contacts and their SMS history, as well as their music preferences, songs that were on their device, and some of their Facebook and Twitter things as well.”

The individuals who rented that vehicle unwittingly left their personal information in the vehicle. As a result, law enforcement can access a lot of personal information - embarrassing, and maybe even incriminating, information without a warrant.

Plugging into your vehicle is the same as throwing your personal information in the garbage and putting it out on the curb. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a California case that the Fourth Amendment does not require that police obtain a warrant before searching trash containers placed on the curb.

No person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in items left in a public place. “What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection,” said the justices. That goes for personal information dumped into a vehicle’s data system.

The courts have yet to catch up with this new form of invasive surveillance technology. In the meantime, the willy-nilly exposure of personal data may come at a cost.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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