Texting in a car

Judge rules it’s fine for car makers to intercept your text messages

A federal judge has refused to bring back a class action lawsuit that alleged four car manufacturers had violated Washington state’s privacy laws by using vehicles’ on-board infotainment systems to record customers’ text messages and mobile phone call logs.

The judge ruled that the practice doesn’t meet the threshold for an illegal privacy violation under state law. The plaintiffs had appealed a prior judge’s dismissal.

Car manufacturers Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, and General Motors were facing five related privacy class action suits. One of those cases, against Ford, had been dismissed on appeal previously.

Infotainment systems in the company’s vehicles began downloading and storing a copy of all text messages on smartphones when they were connected to the system. Once messages have been downloaded, the software makes it impossible for vehicle owners to access their communications and call logs but does provide law enforcement with access, the lawsuit said.

The Seattle-based appellate judge ruled that the interception and recording of mobile phone activity did not meet the Washington Privacy Act’s (WPA) standard that a plaintiff must prove that “his or her business, his or her person, or his or her reputation” has been threatened.

In a recent Lock and Code podcast, we heard from Mozilla researchers that the data points that car companies say they can collect on you include social security number, information about your religion, your marital status, genetic information, disability status, immigration status, and race. And they can sell that data to marketers.

This is alarming. Given the increasing number of sensors being placed in cars every year, this is becoming an increasingly grave problem.

In the same podcast, we also explored the booming revenue stream that car manufacturers are tapping into by not only collecting people’s data, but also packaging it together for targeted advertising.

According to the Mozilla research, popular global brands including BMW, Ford, Toyota, Tesla, Kia, and Subaru:

“Can collect deeply personal data such as sexual activity, immigration status, race, facial expressions, weight, health and genetic information, and where you drive. Researchers found data is being gathered by sensors, microphones, cameras, and the phones and devices drivers connect to their cars, as well as by car apps, company websites, dealerships, and vehicle telematics.”

In fact, the seasoned Mozilla team said “cars are the worst product category we have ever reviewed for privacy” after finding that all 25 car brands they researched earned the “Privacy Not Included” warning label.

Since that doesn’t give us much of a choice to go for a brand that respects our privacy, I suggest we turn off our phones before we start the car. It’s both safer and better for your privacy.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pieter Arntz

Malware Intelligence Researcher

Was a Microsoft MVP in consumer security for 12 years running. Can speak four languages. Smells of rich mahogany and leather-bound books.