Police in the U.S., including officials with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), have been accessing vehicle location data provided by car parts manufacturers, a new report from Forbes reveals. Documents reviewed by the news outlet show police using this data to track suspects involved in criminal investigations.
Per Forbes, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and ICE worked together during at least one investigation to subpoena car telematics from OnStar, the GM subsidiary whose security systems are installed in millions of vehicles all over the world. OnStar provided the feds with location data on a Chevrolet that had recently been involved in a car chase with police in Sonoita, Arizona, and officials were shortly thereafter able to locate the vehicle, if not the suspect (no one has yet been arrested in the case).
In addition to OnStar, ICE and CBP have also apparently been securing car data from two other vendors: Geotab and Spireon. Both firms sell digital asset management tools to large freighting companies, collecting immense amounts of data about the companies’ vehicles in the process. Police can tap into this data with a warrant. Forbes reports that last year Geotab helped authorities locate “a freight truck that was caught carrying more than 13,000 pounds of marijuana.”
OnStar, Geotab, and Spireon did not immediately reply to Gizmodo’s request for comment and we’ll update this post when we hear back.
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All of this is made possible by the increasingly internet-connected nature of the modern car: vehicles share more and more data with manufacturers and third-party parts suppliers (everything from GPS, to information on usage rates, external road conditions, as well as internal media and communications preferences) and the data is often shared with or sold to other third parties.
This is also just the latest example of how the federal government increasingly uses the private sector to secure data on Americans. While this Forbes story shows feds actually subpoenaing records, in many cases officials seem content to forego traditional procedure, skip a warrant, and just buy the data outright: Agencies of all stripes have shown a willingness to engage in this shadowy trend (see: the FBI, the DEA, DHS, the U.S. Special Operations Command, the IRS, and others) and there is a booming industry, brimming with contractors, that is devoted to meeting their demand.
For example, we recently wrote about a firm that claims it can help government agencies “remotely geolocate” nearly any car in the world, using data it purchased legally from the vehicle telematics market. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the good ol’ days when government officials had to literally tail your car to know where you were going.