On November 30, police arrived at a Florida woman’s home to interrogate her in connection with a hit-and-run car accident. They were following up on a 911 call placed by … the woman’s vehicle.
According to a Ford spokesperson, 10 million Ford vehicles already on U.S. streets come equipped with a feature that automatically calls 911 in the event of a collision. It is unknown how many cars by other manufacturers also contain the same capability.
Although the “911 Assist” feature is actually meant to help locate people rendered unconscious during car crashes, the recent case highlights some of the wider civil liberties implications of this and other “smart” surveillance software.
How a car turned its driver in
According to news reports, the Ford vehicle owned by Cathy Bernstein placed a call to 911 on November 30 to report a collision. A 911 dispatcher then returned the call to Bernstein to make sure she was all right. Bernstein denied having been in a collision, said she had not been drinking, and said she was going home.
Meanwhile, a woman named Anna Preston was admitted to the hospital at around the same time with back injuries stemming from a hit-and-run crash.
Police investigating Preston’s account learned of the 911 call and went to Bernstein’s home. There they saw that her car had severe damage to its front, as well as streaks of silver paint the same color as Preston’s vehicle. The airbag in Bernstein’s car had also deployed.
When they questioned her, she initially claimed that she had struck a tree. But she eventually confessed to hitting Preston, and in fact admitted that she had been fleeing the scene of another hit-and-run crash when she rammed into Preston’s car. She was arrested and taken into custody.
How smart is too smart?
Ford spokesperson Alan Hall said he was unaware of any other cases in which the 911 Assist feature had led to the arrest of the car’s own driver. But he noted that in a technical sense, the feature “worked exactly like it was supposed to” – that is, it called 911 after a collision, and allowed dispatchers to call the driver back to make sure they were still conscious and not in need of rescue.
Hall also noted that drivers must deliberately opt-in to the 911 Assist feature and connect it to their phones in order for it to operate.
It is unknown exactly how many cars currently on the road contain similar 911 dialing features. However, the capability is planned for every car in the European Union as of 2018.
Bernstein’s unusual case highlights the unforeseen implications of this and other “smart” technology, said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He compared it to another case in which a person had their illegal marijuana growing operation reported to police after posting a picture of it on a social media network. In both cases, the users of the technology technically made the decision to share the information that got them arrested.
“Technology is moving so fast that people can forget what information is being collected and who it’s going to,” Stanley said.
Even vehicles not equipped with 911-calling features may contain other features that threaten users’ privacy and safety. Many cars now contain computers with GPS devices, allowing authorities to locate or even track them. And Congress has launched investigations into the threat of cyber-attacks to hijack the “smart,” Internet-connected computer systems now available on many vehicles.
Over the summer, Fiat-Chrysler was forced to issue a recall of 1.4 million vehicles after hackers demonstrated a way to remotely take control of a Jeep’s air-conditioner, stereo, GPS system, transmission and brakes.
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