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Digital Domestic Abuse and Car Apps

Timothy P. Flynn Jan. 1, 2024

car app stalkerAs the "Internet of Things" becomes ever more ubiquitous, our privacy seems to shrink in proportion to this expansion of connectivity. Shrinking privacy looms large when you find yourself in an abusive relationship. This is particularly true with the onset of modern car apps.

This writer published an article about the new phenomena of digital domestic violence in the October 2018 issue of Laches. Here is a link to that article. The simple notion behind the concept of digital domestic violence is that the abuser weaponizes the connectivity of various Internet-connected smart devices such as cell phones, laptop computers, thermostats, garage door openers, lights, and music systems to inflct abuse on their partner.

Alarms go off in the middle of the night, lights are turned on and off, the heat is cranked up in the summer and the AC is cranked up in the winter. All to establish the effect that the victim is not in control of their own environment; the abuser is in control.

When you now purchase a vehicle, no matter the brand or model, the manufacturer offers a car app for that specific vehicle. One of the central features of the app is a vehicle tracking. Recent high-conflict divorces and domestic abuse disputes have featured these car apps as a new form of stalking.

If a couple purchases a vehicle together, sometimes the spouse that is on the title -and by extension, the car app- is not the one that drives and uses the vehicle. In such cases, the spouse using the car may not even know that the other spouse has activated the car app or its tracking function.

Although many of us think of our cars as sanctuaries of privacy, there are few places in our daily lives that are less private. Most vehicle manufacturers routinely record basic driving data such as: whether vehicle occupants are wearing seatbelts, speed, brake pressure, sudden turns, and many other driving markers. This data is often shared by the car company with other entities such as insurance companies.

The data can be critical in the accident recontruction process and for other purposes. Nissan apparently even collects data about their vehicle user's "sexual activity". Talk about lack of privacy. Currently, there is no way for a consumer to "turn off" the data collection in their vehicle.

For the domestic abuser the car app presents new opportunities to exert power and control. In some of the recent cases getting attention, the abuser was able to not only track their partner's vehicle, but even manipulate it as well.

For example, in a case from Louisiana, the wife, in a divorce process and unaware that her husband was using her Mercedes "Mbrace" car app system, was shocked to learn that her husband has tracked her to a male friend's home. The husband was able to obtain the man's cell number and send him abusive text messages; surveilance cameras indicated the husband's vehicle came within a block of the man's home.

Often, domestic abuse victims do not wish their abusers to have their address. This becomes difficult to conceal when the abuser has continuous access to the victim's vehicle location. Of particular concern is the disclosure of a domestic violence shelter which could present a clear and present danger.

In another reported case, a woman had her vehicle repeatedly started at night while it was inside her closed garage causing a dangerous buildup of noxious deadly fumes. Other cases involve having the vehicle's horns going off in the middle of the night.

Many of these cases also feature the frustrating characteristic that the victim cannot reach out to the vehicle manufacturer and get them to turn off the app. Only the record owner on the title to the vehicle can turn off the app. One victim hired an independent mechanic to disable the app in her Lexus; but the vehicle navigation system and SOS system were disabled too.

One best practice to thwart the practice of digital domestic abuse is to ensure that both partners have equal access to all smart devices in the couple's home and vehicles. Another tool is the Safe Connections Act, a federal law that simplifies the process of uncoupling a joint cell phone account. Perhaps the legislative intent behind this law can be applied to car apps.

If you or a loved one is the victim of digital domestic abuse, contact our law firm to explore your options.