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Car Snitch Loophole: Can Police Use Bluetooth to View Personal Data Without a Warrant?

by Brooke Kaufman

An article from Reason.com claims police are able to view personal data when a cellphone is connected to car Bluetooth. Without a warrant, police are able to see not only GPS details but other kinds of information shared with the car’s onboard computer. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that police access to such kinds of data requires a search warrant. Fourth Amendment protections have not yet expanded to include modern car technology, opening the door to police departments looking to covertly extract data from owners’ cars.

In 2021, The Intercept reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection had bought “vehicle forensics” kits that can obtain a car’s travel data, text messages, and photos from connected devices. Some commentators believe that car computers may fall under the “vehicle exception” to the Fourth Amendment warrant-requirement — meaning CBP’s use of the kits is “likely” legal. However, that assessment is not supported by all experts in the field. The exception, devised by the Supreme Court in 1925 under Prohibition, allows police to search vehicles without a warrant if they have reasonable suspicion to believe contraband or other evidence of illegal activity is present.

A bipartisan bill that would prevent police from using the exception to access car computers has support in the House and Senate. The Closing Warrantless Digital Car Search Loophole Act would require a warrant prior to a search of vehicle data that could be used as a basis for probable cause or as evidence in court.

“The idea [that] the government can peruse digital car data without a warrant should sit next to the Geo Metro on the scrap heap of history,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D–Ore.), who introduced the Senate version of the bill along with Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R–Wyo.), said in a statement to Reason. The House sponsors are Reps. Peter Meijer (R–Mich.) and Ro Khanna (D–Calif.).

The bill is supported by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”).

“Modern vehicles can reveal as much about us as our phones—not only where we go, but who we call, and even what we weigh,” EFF Legislative Director Lee Tien said. “Yet the federal government has argued it can access this sensitive driver and passenger information freely, without a warrant.”

Closing this loophole would arguably broaden the Fourth Amendment’s scope to cover the realities of the 21st century.

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