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Editorial: Privacy shouldn't disappear in our vehicles


The ever-increasing connectivity between phones and the complex infotainment systems in automobiles may be putting our civil liberties at risk. Technology should never be used as an end-around the Constitution. 

Research indicates police departments can and are using a device on vehicles to extract troves of text messages, contacts, emails and other personal data from a connected smartphone — all without a warrant — thanks to a legal exception to the Fourth Amendment that allows law enforcement to search cars on suspicion of a crime.

Adam Gershowitz, a law professor at the College of William & Mary, authored the working paper titled “The Tesla Meets the Fourth Amendment.”

In it, he argues that new extraction technology allows police to glean cellphone information stored in modern vehicles like Teslas and despite federal protections against invading cellphone data.

More: Police need a warrant to search your cellphone. Your car's data systems? Not so much

A 1925 ruling by the Supreme Court in Carrol v. United States permitted the warrantless search of a vehicle because cars and their drivers may be able to escape an officer if obtaining a warrant was required before a search.

Such searches have since become standard practice for police departments. Now law enforcement is pushing that exemption to gain access to the information in high-tech vehicles.

This comes despite Supreme Court rulings that limit the ability to investigate vehicles quickly to the search for dangerous weapons or illegal drugs. 

But, unlike the exception for cars, the Supreme Court has explicitly protected citizens' cellphones from warrantless searches.

In 2014, the High Court ruled unanimously in favor of a California gang member whose cellphone was confiscated during an arrest. The opinion found that cellphones and the personal information they contain are protected from unreasonable searches and seizure.

That decision didn’t specifically touch on whether those protections would apply to vehicles that contain the same data. 

Since then, technology in vehicles has outpaced the law and Supreme Court precedents. That needs to change because citizens' privacy and rights are at risk.

The Michigan State Police told NBC News last year that it has four offices across the state extracting vehicle data for “smaller, everyday felonies” as often as “two to three times a week.”

That means a lot of private phone information has already been turned over to law enforcement without a warrant. Police aren’t likely to stop taking our personal information until laws codifying vehicular phone data explicitly prevent it.

The Michigan Legislature also must step in to specifically codify that the vehicle exception to the Fourth Amendment doesn't mean police can search our phones without a warrant.