Bipartisan Bill Seeks to Stop Warrantless Car Spying by Police

Legislation introduced in both the House and Senate today will force cops to obtain a warrant before extracting information stored in the computers onboard modern cars, closing what the bill’s sponsors say is a glaring, outdated loophole through the Fourth Amendment.

Recent automobile models rely heavily on computers for everything from navigation to engine diagnostics to entertainment, and entice drivers to connect their smartphones for added features and convenience. These systems log drivers’ movements while also downloading deeply sensitive personal information from their smartphones over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi — typically silently, without their knowledge or consent.

The conversion of cars into four-wheeled unprotected databases, with troves of information about owners’ travels and associates, has presented low-hanging fruit for law enforcement agencies, which are able to legally pull data off a vehicle without the owner’s knowledge. They are aided by a small but lucrative industry of tech firms that perform “vehicle forensics,” extracting not only travel data but often text messages, photos, and other private data from synced devices. Critics say this exploits a dangerous gap in the law: If police want to search the contents of your smartphone, the Fourth Amendment demands that they obtain a warrant first; if they want to search the computer built into your car, they don’t need any such permission, even if they end up siphoning data that originated on the exact same smartphone.

The new legislation, titled “Closing the Warrantless Digital Car Search Loophole Act,” would bar such warrantless searches; evidence from them would be inadmissible in court, to establish probable cause, or for use by regulatory agencies. The measure was introduced in the Senate by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Wyoming Republican Cynthia Lummis, and in the House by Rep. Peter Meijer, the Republican representing West Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, and Rep. Ro Khanna, the Democrat in the San Francisco Bay Area’s 17th.

“The idea the government can peruse digital car data without a warrant should sit next to the Geo Metro on the scrap heap of history,” Wyden said in an advance announcement shared with The Intercept.

In May, The Intercept reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection had contracted with MSAB, a Swedish company specializing in digital device cracking, to purchase vehicle forensics kits manufactured by Berla, an American firm. MSAB marketing materials make clear how powerful these kits are, touting the ability to pull “[r]ecent destinations, favorite locations, call logs, contact lists, SMS messages, emails, pictures, videos, social media feeds, and the navigation history of everywhere the vehicle has been,” as well as data that can be used to determine a target’s “future plan,” and “[i]dentify known associates and establish communication patterns between them.”

CBP’s use of such tools is among the warrantless uses of car data that would be blocked by the new bill, Wyden spokesperson Keith Chu confirmed.

“New vehicles are computers on wheels and should have the same 4th Amendment protections.”

The bill protects a diverse range of data collected by today’s cars, including “all onboard and telematics data” in the vehicle or in attached “storage and communication systems,” including “diagnostic data, entertainment system data, navigation data, images or data captured by onboard sensors, or cameras, including images or data used to support automated features or autonomous driving, internet access, and communication to and from vehicle occupants.”

There are carveouts; the bill exempts vehicles that require a commercial license to drive as well as traffic safety research and situations subject to “emergency provisions in the wiretap act and the USA Freedom Act, enabling the government to get a warrant after the fact,” according to an overview shared by Wyden’s office.

The bill has endorsements from an array of left-leaning groups, including due process advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation. But the Republican backing underlines that digital privacy and surveillance concerns resonate across party lines. “New vehicles are computers on wheels, and my constituents in Wyoming should have the same 4th Amendment protections for their vehicles as they do for their phones and home computers,” Lummis said in the announcement.

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