Digital Privacy in Autonomous Vehicles

Steven Groschen, MJLST Managing Editor

The introduction of autonomous vehicles is likely to have a widespread effect on laws related to road travel. Theoretically, a well-functioning driverless car will never speed or run a red light. Thus, driverless cars are less likely to be pulled over. But what if an autonomous vehicle is pulled over and the officer wishes to perform a search of the automated system? Clues to how a court might handle this scenario are contained in Riley v. California.

Riley v. California, 134 S.Ct. 2473 (2014), explored the amount of protection digital content residing on an electronic device receives from unreasonable searches and seizures during a lawful arrest. The Supreme Court examined two independent fact patterns involving police officers searching an arrestee’s cellphone without a warrant. In the first fact pattern, an officer seized an individual’s cellphone in the course of an arrest and proceeded to electronically search through the contact list and pictures on the device. This search yielded evidence of gang related activity which was later used to convict the individual. In the second fact pattern, a police officer searched the phone of an individual, whom was also under arrest, and located a contact entry titled “my house.” The police used the phone number in the contact entry to discover the arrestee’s address. This information and a few other pieces of evidence taken from the phone helped the police secure a warrant to search the arrestee’s home.

The Riley decision made two holdings potentially relevant to autonomous cars. First, the court held that during a lawful arrest a warrant is generally required before searching the digital content on a cellphone. Second, the court suggested this protection is for the digital content and not necessarily the cellphone itself. These holdings can be interpreted as providing protection for digital content contained within automated driving systems. As a result, a plausible argument exists that, in the future, an officer will need a warrant before searching the digital content of an autonomous vehicle.

Predicting with any level of certainty how a court will handle digital content on an autonomous vehicle is difficult. Nonetheless, the discussion is important because autonomous vehicles are likely to become ubiquitous on the roadways in the next few decades. These vehicles will contain sensitive information such as route history and a log of the car’s actions. It is important to continue debating what privacy rights owners can and should expect regarding their future cars.

For an in-depth look at Riley and its implications for digital content contained in autonomous vehicles, see Sarah Aue Palodichuk’s article entitled “Driving into the Digital Age: How SDVs Will Change the Law and Its Enforcement.”