Your car may know a surprising number of things about you and your activities. Newer models store all kinds of data in their infotainment systems and event data recorders. And all that data is currently fair game for police and other law enforcement officials.
Thanks to a Supreme Court Ruling from 1925, police can search vehicles without first getting warrants. But times have changed. No one in 1925 worried that cars would track your taste in music and your location history. Today’s cars record that data and more, and the Georgia Supreme Court recently heard arguments on whether police should need warrants to access it.
A question of the Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment protects people from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” In most cases, this means that government officials need to get warrants before they conduct their searches. But this is not true in all cases. Officials may not need warrants to search objects in plain view, and they don’t always need warrants to search your car. According to a paper on the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers website, there are two main reasons the Supreme Court set this precedent:
- Cars are mobile, and drivers could easily move them from one jurisdiction into another
- Drivers have a lower expectation of privacy in vehicles on public roadways
However, the justices of the 1925 Supreme Court never dreamed that cars would carry so much data as they do today. In 1925, cars were metal carriages with engines and tires that would carry people from one place to another. Today, they’re part of the interconnected, online world fueled by big data, and they know more about us and our activities than most people suspect.
Just what does your car know about you?
If you have a newer vehicle with an event data recorder (or “black box”) and a modern infotainment system, your car is likely recording all kinds of data. One private forensic service lists many of the things your car could potentially tell law enforcement officials, including:
- What happened in the car right before an accident
- Where the car was at specific points in time
- The routes the car most often traveled
- If any drivers had planned routes they had not yet driven
- Who had connected their devices to the car
- The contact information recorded on the connected devices
The question that recently came before the Georgia Supreme Court was whether to treat this information like the data in our cell phones. The United States Supreme Court said that, in most cases, officers needed to get warrants to search that data.
Know your rights
Whatever the Georgia Supreme Court decides, it’s likely to have far-reaching consequences, especially since our cars are only going to learn more about us, never less. And anyone who owns a newer vehicle will want to pay attention as the decision will directly affect how much the government can learn about you without first getting a warrant.