Thomas Fox-Brewster of Forbes is taking a closer look at a decade-plus of in-car surveillance, courtesy of electronics and services manufacturers are installing in as many cars as possible.
Following the news that cops are trying to sweat down an Amazon Echo in hopes of hearing murder-related conversations, it’s time to revisit the eavesdropping that’s gone on for years prior to today’s wealth of in-home recording devices.
One of the more recent examples can be found in a 2014 warrant that allowed New York police to trace a vehicle by demanding the satellite radio and telematics provider SiriusXM provide location information.
In this case, SiriusXM complied by turning on its “stolen vehicle recovery” mode, which allowed law enforcement to track the vehicle for ten days. SiriusXM told Forbes it only does this in response to search warrants and court orders. That may be the case for real-time tracking, but any location information captured and stored by SiriusXM can be had with nothing more than a subpoena, as this info is normally considered a third-party record.
It’s not just satellite radio companies allowing cops to engage in surreptitious tracking. OnStar and other in-vehicle services have been used by law enforcement to eavesdrop on personal conversations between drivers and passengers.
In at least two cases, individuals unwittingly had their conversations listened in on by law enforcement. In 2001, OnStar competitor ATX Technologies (which later became part of Agero) was ordered to provide “roving interceptions” of a Mercedes Benz S430V. It initially complied with the order in November of that year to spy on audible communications for 30 days, but when the FBI asked for an extension in December, ATX declined, claiming it was overly burdensome.
In 2007, the OnStar system in a Chevrolet Tahoe belonging to a Gareth Wilson in Ohio contacted OnStar staff when an emergency button was pushed. As noted in a 2008 opinion from the case, Wilson was unaware the button had been hit. Subsequently, an OnStar employee heard the occupants discussing a possible drug deal, and allowed an officer from the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office to listen to the conversation. When the vehicle was located and searched, marijuana was found and an indictment filed days later. Ironically, the suspect hadn’t even signed up to the OnStar service, but it hadn’t been switched off.
The 2001 case didn’t end well for law enforcement. It wasn’t that the court had an issue with the eavesdropping, but rather that the act of listening in limited the functionality of the in-car tech, which the court found to be overly-burdensome.
OnStar is also asked to engage in real-time tracking by law enforcement. While OnStar denies it collects location info, it too has a stolen car recovery mode that allows OnStar to track vehicles. OnStar also says it will only do this in response to warrants and court orders — or unless “exigent circumstances” necessitate the bypassing of these constitutional protections. What OnStar definitely won’t do is let the public know how many times law enforcement has asked to track vehicles. The company told Forbes it “doesn’t release the number of these requests.”
Plenty of vehicles come with built-in GPS-reliant devices, most of which perform some sort of data retention. Anything not considered to be “real-time” can be obtained without a warrant, thanks to the incredibly-outdated Third Party Doctrine. Private conversations can be captured and recorded with warrants, which makes a large number of vehicles on the road confidential informants on standby.
Courts have generally been sympathetic to law enforcement use of in-car technology, finding the use of built-in “tools” to be less intrusive than officers installing their own devices on suspects’ vehicles. Certainly law enforcement finds these pre-equipped listening/tracking devices more convenient as well.
The expansion of in-car tech has led to a great many opportunities for law enforcement, at the expense of privacy expectations. While drivers certainly can’t “reasonably” expect their travels on public roads to be “private,” the collection of location data by third parties basically puts drivers under constant surveillance, relieving law enforcement from the burden of actually having to dedicate personnel, vehicles, and equipment to this task. And if cops can’t get this location info from in-dash systems, they can probably grab it from the drivers’ cell phone service providers.
Law enforcement may find encryption to be slowing things down in terms of accessing cell phone contents, but everything else — from in-car electronics to the Internet of Things — is playing right into their hands.