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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.

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Volkswagen, BMW Fined $1 Billion For Colluding To Make Dirtier Cars

Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler spent years illegally colluding to slow the deployment of cleaner emissions technology, says the European Union, which is dishing out fines as a result. From a report:
The EU’s executive branch hit the Volkswagen Group (which owns Audi and Porsche) and BMW with a collective $1 billion fine on Thursday for their role in the scheme. Volkswagen Group must pay $595 million, while BMW will pay $442 million. Daimler, however, evaded a $861 million fine of its own because the automaker revealed the collusion to the regulators.

The scheme described by EU authorities is separate from the Volkswagen Group’s massive Dieselgate scandal, in which the company installed software on its diesel vehicles that helped fool environmental regulators into believing they were compliant, when in reality, they were polluting far more than the legal limit. Dieselgate ultimately led to nearly $40 billion in fines, buybacks, and legal fees for the Volkswagen Group. Daimler also installed software on some of its diesel vehicles to cheat emissions tests and has paid billions of dollars in fines. BMW was careful to point out Thursday that, unlike the other companies it was caught colluding with, it had not cheated emissions testing.

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Car Manufacturers Are Tracking Millions of Cars

Millions of new cars sold in the US and Europe are “connected,” having some mechanism for exchanging data with their manufacturers after the cars are sold; these cars stream or batch-upload location data and other telemetry to their manufacturers, who argue that they are allowed to do virtually anything they want with this data, thanks to the “explicit consent” of the car owners — who signed a lengthy contract at purchase time that contained a vague and misleading clause deep in its fine-print.

Slashdot reader Luthair adds that “OnStar infamously has done this for some time, even if the vehicle’s owner was not a subscriber of their services.” But now 78 million cars have an embedded cyber connection, according to one report, with analysts predicting 98% of new cars will be “connected” by 2021. The Washington Post calls it “Big Brother on Wheels.”

“Carmakers have turned on a powerful spigot of precious personal data, often without owners’ knowledge, transforming the automobile from a machine that helps us travel to a sophisticated computer on wheels that offers even more access to our personal habits and behaviors than smartphones do.”

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