Court rules automakers can record and intercept owner text messages
A federal judge on Tuesday refused to bring back a class action lawsuit alleging four auto manufacturers had violated Washington state’s privacy laws by using vehicles’ on-board infotainment systems to record and intercept customers’ private text messages and mobile phone call logs.
The Seattle-based appellate judge ruled that the practice does not meet the threshold for an illegal privacy violation under state law, handing a big win to automakers Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen and General Motors, which are defendants in five related class action suits focused on the issue. One of those cases, against Ford, had been dismissed on appeal previously.
The plaintiffs in the four live cases had appealed a prior judge’s dismissal. But the appellate judge ruled Tuesday that the interception and recording of mobile phone activity did not meet the Washington Privacy Act’s standard that a plaintiff must prove that “his or her business, his or her person, or his or her reputation” has been threatened.
In an example of the issues at stake, plaintiffs in one of the five cases filed suit against Honda in 2021, arguing that beginning in at least 2014 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.
An Annapolis, Maryland-based company, Berla Corporation, provides the technology to some car manufacturers but does not offer it to the general public, the lawsuit said. Once messages are downloaded, Berla’s software makes it impossible for vehicle owners to access their communications and call logs but does provide law enforcement with access, the lawsuit said.
Many car manufacturers are selling car owners’ data to advertisers as a revenue boosting tactic, according to earlier reporting by Recorded Future News. Automakers are exponentially increasing the number of sensors they place in their cars every year with little regulation of the practice.
Suzanne Smalley is a reporter covering privacy, disinformation and cybersecurity policy for The Record. She was previously a cybersecurity reporter at CyberScoop and Reuters. Earlier in her career Suzanne covered the Boston Police Department for the Boston Globe and two presidential campaign cycles for Newsweek. She lives in Washington with her husband and three children.