How tracking and technology in cars are weaponized by abusive partners

After almost 10 years of marriage, Christine Dowdall wanted to retire. Her husband was no longer the charming man she had fallen in love with. He had become narcissistic, abusive and unfaithful, she said. After one of their fights turned violent in September 2022, Ms. Dowdall, a real estate agent, fled her home in Covington, Louisiana, driving her Mercedes-Benz C300 sedan to her daughter’s house near Shreveport, five hours away. She filed a report of domestic violence with the police two days later.

Her husband, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, wouldn’t let her go. He called her repeatedly, she said, first begging her to come back and then threatening her. She stopped responding to him, she said, even though he texted and called her hundreds of times.

Ms Dowdall, 59, began occasionally seeing a strange new message on her Mercedes’ screen, relating to a location service called ‘mbrace’. The second time it happened, she took a photo and looked up the name online.

“I realized, oh my God, it was him following me,” Ms Dowdall said.

“Mbrace” was part of “Mercedes me” – a suite of connected services for the car, accessible via a smartphone app. Ms Dowdall had only used the Mercedes Me app to make car loan repayments. She didn’t realize the service could also be used to locate the car. One evening, while visiting a friend, her husband sent her a message with a thumbs-up emoji. A nearby camera captured his car driving in the area, according to the detective who worked his case.

Ms. Dowdall called Mercedes customer service several times to try to remove her husband’s digital access to the car, but the loan and title were in his name, a decision the couple made because they had a better credit rating than his. Even though she was making the payments, had a restraining order against her husband, and had been granted exclusive use of the car during the divorce proceedings, Mercedes representatives told her that her husband was the client and could therefore retain his access. There was no button she could press to remove the app’s connection to the vehicle.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve heard something like this,” one of the representatives told Ms Dowdall.

A Mercedes-Benz advocate said the company does not comment on “individual customer questions.”

For its driver, a car can feel like a sanctuary. A place to sing your favorite songs, to cry, to let off steam, or to drive to a place where no one knows you’re going.

But the truth is, there are few places in our lives that are less private.

Modern cars are called “smartphones on wheels” because they are connected to the Internet and have a myriad of data collection methods, from cameras and seat weight sensors to record how hard you brake and corner. Most drivers don’t realize how much information their car collects and who has access to it, said Jen Caltrider, a privacy researcher at Mozilla who has examined the privacy policies of over 25 car brands and found some surprising revelations, like Nissan saying it could collect information on “sexual activity.”

“People think their car is private,” Ms. Caltrider said. “With a computer, you know where the camera is and you can put tape on it. Once you buy a car and find it’s not privacy friendly, what are you supposed to do? »

Privacy advocates worry about how automakers use and share consumer data – with insurance companies, For example – and the inability of drivers to opt out of data collection. California Privacy Regulations investigation automobile industry.

For car owners, the benefit of this data palooza comes in the form of smartphone apps that allow them to check a car’s location when, for example, they forget where it is parked; lock and unlock the vehicle remotely; and to turn it on or off. Some apps can even remotely adjust the car’s climate controls, sound the horn or turn on the lights. After setting up the app, the car owner can grant access to a limited number of other drivers.

Domestic violence experts say these convenience features are used as weapons in abusive relationships and automakers are unwilling to help victims. This is particularly complicated when the victim is a co-owner of the car or is not named on the title.

Detective Kelly Downey of the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office, who investigated Ms. Dowdall’s husband for stalking, also contacted Mercedes more than a dozen times for not being available, she said . She had previously encountered another case of harassment via a connected car app: a woman whose husband turned on his Lexus while she sat in the garage in the middle of the night. Also in this case, Detective Downey was unable to convince the car company to disable the husband’s access; the victim sold his car.

“The car companies need to find a way to stop this,” Detective Downey said. “Technology may be our boon, but it is also very scary because it could harm you.”

Mercedes also failed to respond to a search warrant, Detective Downey said. Instead, she found evidence that the husband was using the Mercedes Me app by obtaining records of his internet activity.

Unable to get help from Mercedes, Ms Dowdall took her car to an independent mechanic this year and paid $400 to turn off remote tracking. This also disables the car’s navigation system and its SOS button, a tool for getting help in an emergency.

“I did not care. I just didn’t want him to know where I was,” said Ms Dowdall, whose husband committed suicide last month. “Car manufacturers should provide the option to deactivate this tracking.”

Eva Galperin, an expert on technology-related domestic violence at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said she had seen another case of an abuser using a car app to track a woman’s movements. victim, and that the victim did not realize it because it was not she “who set it up”.

“As far as I know, there is no guide on how to stop your partner from getting out of your car after a breakup,” Ms. Galperin said.

Controlling partners have already tracked their victims’ cars using GPS devices and Apple AirTags, Ms. Galperin said, but connected car apps offer new opportunities for harassment.

San Francisco man used his remote access to Tesla modelReuters previously reported on the case.)

According to a lawsuit filed against her husband and Tesla, the car’s lights and horns were activated in a parking lot. In hot weather she would arrive at her car and find that the heater was running so that it was uncomfortably hot, while in cold weather she would find that the air conditioner had been turned on from afar. Her husband, she said in court papers, used the Tesla’s location feature to identify her new residence, which she had hoped to keep from him.

The woman, who obtained a restraining order against her husband, contacted Tesla several times to get her husband’s access to the revoked car – she included some of the emails in the legal documents – but n didn’t succeed.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. In legal filings, Tesla has denied responsibility for the harassment; questioned whether this had happened, based on husband’s denials; and raised questions about the woman’s trustworthiness. (Some of the things she claimed her husband did, like turning on songs with disturbing lyrics while she drove, couldn’t be done through the Tesla app.)

“Virtually every major automaker offers its customers a mobile application with similar functions,” Tesla lawyers wrote in a legal filing. “It is illogical and impractical to expect Tesla to monitor every vehicle owner’s misuse of the mobile app.”

A judge dismissed Tesla’s case, saying it would be “onerous” to expect automakers to determine which allegations of app abuse were legitimate.

Katie Ray-Jones, executive director of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said abusive partners use a wide variety of internet-connected devices — from laptops to smart home products — to track and harass their victims. Technology that monitors a person’s movements is of particular concern for domestic violence shelters, she said, because they are “trying to keep the location of the shelter confidential.”

As a preventative measure, Ray-Jones encourages people in relationships to have equal access to the technologies used to control their homes and property.

“If there is an app that controls your automobile, you both need to have access to it,” she said.

Adam Dodge, a former family law attorney turned digital safety trainer, called harassment by car apps “a blind spot for victims and car companies.”

“Most of the victims I’ve spoken to are completely unaware that the car they’re relying on is connected to an app,” he said. “They can’t face threats they don’t know exist. »

As a possible solution to the problem, he and other domestic violence experts have pointed to the Safe Connections Act, a recent federal law that allows victims of domestic violence to easily separate their phones from accounts shared with their abusers. A similar law should extend to cars, Mr. Dodge said, allowing people with a court protection order to easily cut off an abuser’s digital access to their car.

“Having access to a car for a victim is a lifesaver,” he said. “No victim should have to choose between being hounded by the car or not having a car. But this is the crossroads where many of them find themselves.