Lawyers Reaching For In-Car Data

in car dateInformation gathered by vehicle telematics systems such as General Motors’ OnStar, Ford’s Sync, BMW Connected Drive and others is garnering increased attention from lawyers who see the data as a puzzle piece in building court cases.

It’s a sign that privacy concerns raised about telematics data won’t go away soon. At the least, the industry’s quest to be closer to consumers through telematics has created new responsibilities involving data management.

Those responsibilities include complying with court orders to turn over telematics data, which automakers say they have done.

The privacy terms for Connected Drive’s BMW Assist component says it may “collect and retain an electronic or other record” of a person’s location or direction of travel at a given time — providing another potential legal tool for lawyers to go along with cellphone records, vehicle black boxes and even airbag modules.

That may irk consumers who worry about an all-seeing eye keeping tabs on their travels.

Of course, limited vehicle data can’t stand alone, experts say. The data must be backed by other evidence, but lawyers say they’re interested in using the data to build cases.

“It certainly is an intriguing new thing,” said Don Slavik, a product liability lawyer who has worked on litigation involving Toyota and unintended acceleration.

“It introduces some questions of privacy issues that people aren’t aware of. I wasn’t aware of some of this stuff until recently.”
Slavik said he hasn’t used vehicle telematics data yet, but he may turn to such data in future cases.
He said: “We’ve just learned about the large volume of data going through systems. Not just one or 10 or 20 pieces of data, but thousands of pieces of data that are reported.”

Automakers make it clear in their privacy agreements that telematics data will be released to the courts and law enforcement if necessary.
Ford Motor Co. said in an emailed statement to Automotive News that it receives court orders “on behalf of law enforcement or individuals involved in litigation” to provide data from “various vehicle modules.” The data, which sometimes include location, can be retrieved only with “direct physical access” to the vehicle, Ford revealed.

For those concerned that they’re constantly being monitored, Ford said Sync doesn’t track customers or transmit data continuously from a vehicle. The company also said no information is wirelessly transmitted from the vehicle without customer consent.

Ford said the company receives location data only when customers use services such as turn-by-turn directions or look up points of interest.
“Location data is only shared with our partners when necessary to fulfill the services requested by the customer,” Ford said. “As you would expect, our partners are legally bound by contract to protect this information. Ford does not share such data with any other companies, and Ford does not sell this data.”

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