Carmakers Will Give Your Location to Police Without a Warrant, Senators Say

Eight manufacturers reportedly told Congress they'd comply with a request for driver data without a court order.
A cityscape showing a dramatized rendition of connected cars
lupengyu via Getty Images

Connected cars’ data security has become a political battleground in recent years as new cars have become ever-more high-tech. Consumers have good reasons to want their data kept private, and on the surface, the auto industry is an ally on that front. But behind the curtain, the industry is reportedly playing fast and loose with customers’ data, selling it or reportedly even handing it over to police despite promising not to.

Connected cars have been promised to bring about a variety of quality-of-life improvements, both to car ownership and our experiences on the road. They’re touted as preventing theft, streamlining service, improving road safety, and smoothing out traffic. But the drawbacks are manifesting just as quickly, in forms such as privacy issues, stealth recalls, and even enabling stalking. Consumers have other reasons to worry, too: Insurers are pressing harder for vehicle data, and privacy is only becoming more valuable in an increasingly authoritarian surveillance state. The federal government has expressed concern too, with the Biden administration asserting that allowing Chinese EVs to be sold in the U.S. poses national security risks.

BYD King, a Chinese hybrid
BYD King, a Chinese hybrid sedan. BYD

The industry is aware of the nation’s privacy concerns, which is why many automakers signed the Alliance for Automotive Innovation’s Consumer Privacy Protection Principles in 2014. Signatories of this lobby group’s document promised not to hand over location, biometric, or driving behavior data to third parties without driver approval—with some exceptions. One of said exceptions requires police to obtain a court order (or a warrant, a subcategory of court order) to obtain driver info. But now, eight automakers have reportedly admitted to Congress that they’d go against their word when push comes to shove.

Automotive News reports that Toyota, Subaru, Mazda, Nissan, Kia, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen have told Congress they would hand over drivers’ data if faced with a subpoena. There’s a major difference between a subpoena and a court order according to the APA Practice Organization, which says “a subpoena is a lawyer’s assertion that she/he is entitled to the requested information, while a court order determines that the lawyer is in fact entitled to it.” In other words, a subpoena is a request for information; a court order is a judge or magistrate backing that request.

A judge bangs a gavel
Chris Ryan via Getty Images

Acquiring location data through subpoena could be easily weaponized by a legal system under escalating scrutiny for its widespread abuse of power. To at least two Senators though, it also constitutes deceptive marketing on automakers’ parts.

“Automakers have not only kept consumers in the dark regarding their actual practices, but multiple companies misled consumers for over a decade by failing to honor the industry’s own voluntary privacy principles,” Senators Ron Wyden and Ed Markey reportedly wrote to the Federal Trade Commission.

“Vehicle location data can be used to identify Americans who have traveled to seek an abortion in another state, attended protests, support groups for alcohol, drug, and other types of addiction, or identify those of particular faiths, as revealed through trips to places of worship.”

This means a connected car ownership can make someone far easier to track than via their phone, whose location data generally still requires a warrant to obtain. It’s also hypocritical of AAI members, who have previously lobbied against a right-to-repair bill on the purported basis of consumers’ location data falling into the wrong hands.

The auto industry’s speaking out of both sides of its mouth here, showing many of its members can’t be trusted with matters of consumer privacy. It may be best to consider the topic a matter of rhetoric and marketing to some manufacturers, rather than a cause they’ll actually stand up for. With how much private information their products can gather on us, we should all be concerned regardless of whether we own a connected car. After all, when the time comes for many Americans to replace their current vehicle, there won’t be many other options.

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