Get a Warrant, Officer, if You Want to Check out my Vehicle’s Entertainment System

By: Shelia Dunn, NMA Communications Director
Many of us find using a cell phone convenient for communicating and learning. Now, connecting a smartphone to a vehicle extends the utility of that little pocket computer.  Vehicles have become smartphones on wheels.  A car’s infotainment system records and stores call logs, contact lists, GPS information, emails, photos, text messages, social media feeds, videos, […]

Many of us find using a cell phone convenient for communicating and learning. Now, connecting a smartphone to a vehicle extends the utility of that little pocket computer. 

Vehicles have become smartphones on wheels. 

A car’s infotainment system records and stores call logs, contact lists, GPS information, emails, photos, text messages, social media feeds, videos, voice commands, and web histories. Connected vehicles can also keep track of the various phones and other digital devices that have been connected via USB or Bluetooth. This extends to apps installed on the phone and the infotainment center itself. 

The potential consequences of pairing up phones with vehicle infotainment centers have civil libertarians concerned. Research indicates that police departments use a loophole in obtaining information from a connected smartphone via a connected vehicle without a warrant. That is particularly disturbing with most phones containing treasure troves of digital data and sensitive personal information. 

A legal exception to Fourth Amendment protections allows officers to search vehicles on suspicion of a crime. Many police departments have devices that can extract contacts, GPS connections, emails, text messages, and other private data from a connected smartphone. Infotainment systems themselves 

If you can believe it, this runaround of the Constitution’s search-and-seizure provision stems from a 1925 Supreme Court ruling, Carrol v. United States. The justices ruled that a warrantless search of a vehicle was permitted because drivers might be able to escape before an officer could obtain a warrant. Searches without corresponding court orders are becoming more commonplace, and with today’s technology, extend to information accessible through personal devices connected to your vehicle. 

The Supreme Court has already decided what should happen with warrantless cellphone searches. In 2014, the justices unanimously ruled in favor of a California gang member whose smartphone was confiscated during an arrest. In the Riley v. California decision, Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the majority opinion that a warrant is required by police to search a mobile phone’s contents.  

Since that ruling, connected-vehicle technology has outpaced the law. 

Director of the Cyber Forensics Laboratory at the Department of Defense Cyber Crime Center Lam Nguyen said in a 2020 NBC News interview, “I’m sure everyone is aware of how much forensic data is on the phone. What people don’t realize is a lot of that is being transmitted to a car just because you register the phone with the car.”

Smartphone security allows users to use a passcode or biometric data, such as a fingerprint, but a vehicle infotainment system is much more vulnerable—usually with no security needed for access. That makes it much easier for police to extract information during a warrantless search.

The advance of surveillance technology does not give law enforcement or other government agencies the right to subvert our constitutional rights. The guaranteed protection against unwarranted searches and seizures is one of the most important of those rights.

Written By: Shelia Dunn, NMA Communications Director

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