Your Car is Just a Computer With Wheels

The average car or light truck has somewhere between 50 and 200 computers in it, depending on the model. Those computers both create data and consume data. Sometimes that fact can be quite useful.

In 2017 the body of a mechanic, Ronald French, was found in a cornfield in Kalamazoo County, Michigan. For more than two years, detectives tried to figure out what happened with no luck.

But then, one of the detectives heard about digital vehicle forensics, the science of extracting some of that data from those vehicles.

They returned to the truck – I guess it had been impounded? – to see what they could find. In the case of vehicle forensics, just like any other type of forensics, time is your enemy. If that truck had been driven for the two years since Ronald died, there would be no evidence. But apparently, they were lucky.

The first thing they found was that someone had used the voice controlled system to play music. That command was stored in one of those many computers. And it was time stamped right around the time of the murder. They took that voice command and played it for some people who knew the victim. The voice was identified by the now alleged murderer’s wife. The detectives were then able to reconstruct events. The guy who’s voice they had has now been arrested and charged with murder. He is awaiting trial.

Newer cars store information like location, speed, acceleration, especially if the car has a built in navigation system. What calls were made when and for how long if the user’s phone is being controlled by the car’s infotainment system. Voice commands. Web history.

Of course, some of this is only there if you use the car’s features. If you pick up your cell phone and dial a number, the car won’t record that, but if you push a button on the steering wheel and say call mom, then the car has that data.

Semi-autonomous cars collect even more data, including pictures of the driver and what the driver was doing, say, just before a crash.

If the car has telematics and many new cars do not come with an option not to have telematics, the car knows every turn you made, when you turned the lights on, if the seat belts were in use and other information.

It also knows the ID of any phone that has been plugged into the system.

And car computers have almost no security. They are not worried about your privacy (remember that when you sell that car).

With a warrant or maybe less, the police can go through that data and try to connect the dots.

The tools are also growing more powerful. Berla Corporation makes a tool to extract that data. In 2013 the tool worked on 80 car models. Now that number is 14,000.

Some police departments have funded forensics teams to make sure they do this in a way that stands up in court. And people are getting convicted, while others are getting cleared.

In one case, police recovered data from a stolen car. It showed that the car had stopped and the driver’s door opened at an RV dealership. Surveillance camera recordings matched the time and pointed to a former employee. With pictures. The guy pleaded guilty and is serving time.

Of course there are privacy implications here.

People rent cars, connect their phones and the car sucks a lot of data out of that phone. Then they return the cars. But the cars don’t return the data.

Over the next few years, cars will get more computers, more data, more evidence and more privacy concerns. High end cars can generate a gigabyte of data a minute.

Of course if someone else can get that data they can stalk someone.

Or get the car to unlock itself or even start.

There is a law, the Driver Privacy Act of 2015, that regulates the data in the car’s crash event data recorder. But only that data.

Privacy4Cars, an app maker that sells an app to tell you how to erase at least some of the data in many different cars, test drove used cars at 72 dealers. 88% had the former owner’s personal data still in the car.

A dealer is not required to wipe your data from your car when they buy it.

Just something interesting to think about. Credit: NBC

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