Connectivity is all the rage, with not just our computers and phones but our cars and other appliances set to be connected to the internet sooner rather than later. It makes for great convenience for the user, but also raises questions of privacy.

Car companies collect and store information regarding how, when and where vehicles are used. They do so in order to best monitor performance, but the potential exists for the data to be used by the police as well.

While most people would support such use to solve or prevent crime, when does it cross the line into intrusive surveillance of law-abiding citizens?

Any device connected to the internet has the potential to be used as a surveillance device. Samsung Smart TVs – if configured for Voice Command – capture every word said in their presence and transmit them back to Samsung. The Xbox games console does similar.

And now there’s your car.

Forbes Magazine recently reported that court documents in the USA showed a 15-year history of ‘car-tapping’. Police are able to order tech providers to hand over almost real-time vehicle audio and location data. In cases of car-jacking, police have been able to turn off a car’s engine.

A 2014 warrant allowed New York police to trace a vehicle by demanding the satellite radio and telematics provider, SiriusXM, supply it with location information. The warrant, originally filed in 2014 but only recently unsealed, asked SiriusXM “to activate and monitor as a tracking device the SIRIUS XM Satellite Radio installed on the Target Vehicle for a period of 10 days”.

SiriusXM complied with the order by switching on the stolen vehicle recovery feature of its Connected Vehicle Services technology. It was like the police demanding Apple hand over a customer’s location data by turning on the ‘Find My iPhone’ feature.

General Motors (GM) has repeatedly worked with police to hand over not just location but also audio, where conversations were recorded when the in-car cellular connection was switched on. Its OnStar service is one of the best-known telematics providers on the market.

In December 2009 police asked GM for OnStar data from a Chevrolet Tahoe rented by a suspected crack cocaine dealer. The police who were after the dealer had no idea what the car looked like or where it was, but with OnStar tracking they followed him from Houston, Texas, to Ouachita Parish, Louisiana. OnStar’s tracking was accurate too, a court document revealing it was able to “identify that vehicle among the many that were on Interstate 20 that evening”. The police stopped the vehicle and found cocaine, ecstasy and a gun inside.

There are many other cases like this and also of vehicle tech companies being ordered to help law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, to listen in on audible communications.

Many vehicles are fitted with ‘black boxes’ provided by insurance companies that not only keep track of mileage but also record routes, as do satellite navigation systems. Navigation tech companies have shared information with police on things such as areas where drivers travel above the speed limit, so police can better place speed cameras.

Arguments against car-tapping

Americans have the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, but Australians have no such constitutional protection.

In one US case, the defence argued that police had no authority under any statute to use a third party’s factory-installed GPS as a tracking device. A motion to suppress the evidence read: “Allowing this type of intrusion is a leap the court should not be willing to make. Authorising OnStar agents to activate the system within a suspect’s car renders statutory authority null. It effectively makes every single General Motors vehicle and every OnStar service representative an agent of the government”.

However, in all cases, attempts to dismiss the evidence collected by vehicles were unsuccessful. One judge ruled that there was no distinction between a planted GPS tracker and repurposing factory-installed technology; the results were the same.

Technology is moving faster than the law and faster than our ability to comprehend just what, if any, personal liberties we are giving up in exchange for the convenience of constant connection.
The fine print of customer agreements with companies such as OnStar means users are giving consent for their data to be recorded, but does this mean they are relinquishing their right to privacy?
Are we living in a Brave New World of technology, or has 1984 finally arrived in 2017?

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