Driving Dystopia: Connected Vehicle Data Now Up For Grabs By Intelligence Agencies

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Connected vehicles now appear to be on the table as a new vector for government surveillance. On Saturday, President Joe Biden signed a bill that reauthorizes Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act after the Senate passed it late on Friday (60-34).  

The bill saw overwhelming support from Democrat legislators and sufficient Republican backing to be pushed through. Any amendments floated that were intended to shield American citizens from getting scooped up in the net without the government first procuring a warrant were struck down while it was still moving through the House earlier in the week. 

Section 702 of FISA is supposed to be a way to quickly gather intel on the communications of foreign individuals. However, it’s long been criticized as being repeatedly abused as a way to push through warrantless spying and the latest incarnation seems to be written to do exactly that. While reauthorization was still under consideration in Congress, Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL) argued that FISA had been improperly used over 278,000 times by the federal government, often violating the rights of U.S. citizens

"The original intent of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was to be able to gather information on bad foreign actors," she said. "However, as we have seen over the years, the program has been abused to spy on American citizens in direct violation of American liberty and the 4th Amendment. The FISA court found that the federal government violated its own rules over 278,000 times."

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) likewise opposed the bill, stating it effectively forced any business or person who has the ability to record or store electronic communications to spy on behalf of the federal intelligence agencies. In fact, the bill itself states “any other service provider who has access to equipment that is being or may be used to transmit or store wire or electronic communication” is now legally obligated to comply with clandestine communications monitoring on behalf of said agencies. Wyden claimed that would include “anyone with access to a server, a wire, a cable box, a Wi-Fi router, a phone, or a computer.”

It would also include automakers, who now possess some of the world’s largest data centers that compile the immense amount of information produced by today’s connected cars — many of which now incorporate in-cabin microphones and expansive camera arrays. All of that is now appears to be up for grabs, along with the vehicle's positional data and any calls or text made while using it. Moreover, without any need for warrants, there would be no record of who is being spied on or on what grounds. Intelligence agencies can effectively deputize any business or individual for an impromptu surveillance program and then force them to remain quiet about it. 

Truth be told, there’s probably far more focus being given to internet service providers and telecom companies. Heck, even employers and I.T. services could be on the hook. However, if the government likewise wants access to automotive data hubs or demand manufacturers begin tracking certain things on the grounds of national security, there are no legal barriers in place to prevent that from happening. 

We have frequently covered just how invasive these technologies have become over the years and even gotten into just how sloppy automakers have been with protecting customer data. With few exceptions, the industry is eager to profit from the information accrued from connected vehicles. And, with no citizen protections or warrants being associated with the renewed Section 702 of FISA, the government can effectively force automakers (who probably wouldn’t have already complied) to hand over whatever data is gleaned necessary. 

The only real silver lining comes from earlier in the month, when car manufacturers and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were bickering over whether connected vehicles should be regulated in the same manner as the broader telecom infrastructure. Despite frequently arguing with the FCC to allocate sections of the strictly controlled bandwidth for automotive connectivity, the industry does not want connected cars to be regulated by the government. Meanwhile, the FCC has repeatedly suggested automakers have effectively become “mobile virtual network operators” (MVNO) and should be subject to additional oversight. While that would technically require automakers to improve the privacy of their customers on the commercial end, the U.S. government would ultimately gain more direct control of the relevant data. 

But it doesn’t really feel like either scenario would be a win. Neither the government, nor automakers, seem terribly concerned with the privacy of the person that actually owns the vehicle. They’re just worried about who gets to control it. By simply allowing connected vehicles to become the norm, we’ve opened a Pandora's box that will be difficult to close. Barring every person disabling the modem on their vehicle or manufacturers going back to building automobiles without connectivity features — both unlikely — there doesn’t seem to be a way back.

[Image: Ford Motor Co.]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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3 of 64 comments
  • Slavuta Slavuta on Apr 23, 2024

    America, the evil totalitarian police state

  • Del Varner Del Varner on Apr 23, 2024

    Does anyone have a means to bypass the automobile data collection?

    • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Apr 24, 2024

      Take a look at vehicles equipped with the 21-stud Ford flathead V8. (Be aware that there are two water pumps.)

  • NJRide So this is an average age of car to be junked now and of course this is a lower end (and now semi-orphaned) product. But street examples seem to still be worth 2500? So are cars getting junked only coming in because of a traumatic repair? If not it seems a lot of cars being junked that would still possibly worth more than scrap.Also Murilee I remember your Taurus article way back what is the king of the junkyard in 2024?
  • AMcA I applaud Toyota for getting away from the TRD performance name. TuRD. This is another great example of "if they'd just thought to preview the name with a 13 year old boy."
  • Jeff Does this really surprise anyone? How about the shoes and the clothes you wear. Anything you can think of that is either directly made in China or has components made in China likely has some slave labor involved. The very smart phone, tablet, and laptop you are using probably has some component in it that is either mined or made by slave labor. Not endorsing slave labor just trying to be real.
  • Jeff Self-driving is still a far ways from being perfected. I would say at the present time if my car took over if I had a bad day I would have a much worse day. Would be better to get an Uber
  • 2manyvettes Time for me to take my 79 Corvette coupe out of the garage and drive if to foil the forces of evil. As long as I can get the 8 track player working...