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Car Tracking Can Enable Domestic Abuse. Turning It Off Is Easier Said Than Done

Internet-connected cars allow abusers to track domestic violence survivors after they leave

Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

This article is copublished with CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. Sign up for its newsletters.

Having a restraining order against your former partner and a judge granting you possession of a family car should be enough to get a car manufacturer to turn off location tracking, right? 


That scenario has happened to domestic abuse survivors CalMatters spoke to and the law as written hasn’t been enough to help. 

Abusive partners increasingly use technology to exercise control, monitor, and continue to abuse their victims. A person with remote access to a vehicle via smartphone app can turn a car on or off, record video, lock or unlock the doors, and track a car in real time or see where the car has been in the past.

Apple AirTags are notoriously used by stalkers and abusers for tracking, but internet-connected cars can do the same without a driver’s knowledge, and summarily do a poor job of protecting people’s privacy. Last fall, the Mozilla Foundation found that cars had the worst privacy and security grades of any product ever reviewed by the San Francisco-based nonprofit.

Yenni Rivera works with domestic violence survivors in Los Angeles, work she started doing, she said, after being assaulted twice by people she knew, both times with the other person taking away her car. A car is a lifeline for survivors, and taking it away is a means of control. Abusers have tracked survivors for decades, stalking them at the places they go most often, but Rivera said modern tech makes it possible to harass without leaving home.

“I hear the story over and over from survivors about being located by their vehicle and having it taken,” she said. “It just puts you in a worst case situation because it really triggers you thinking, ‘Should I go back and give in?’ and many do. And that’s why many end up being murdered in their own home. The law should make it easier to leave safely and protected.”

To protect domestic violence survivors from tech-enabled violence, California lawmakers are considering a trio of bills this month:

  • Senate Bill 1394 by Sen. Dave Min, an Irvine Democrat, would end tracking of vehicles owned by domestic violence survivors who give proof of possession or exclusive use, including as ordered in a restraining order, dissolution decree, temporary court order, title, or other proof.
  • SB 1000 by Democratic Sens. Angelique Ashby of Sacramento and Susan Rubio of West Covina would deny abusers, following a request by a survivor,  access to devices that can connect to the internet.
  • Assembly Bill 3139 by Assemblymember Akilah Weber, a La Mesa Democrat, would allow a survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, and sex trafficking to immediately end tracking or remote control of a vehicle even if the vehicle isn’t registered in their name.

All three bills passed judiciary committees last week. A letter by cosponsors of SB 1394 sent to the Senate Judiciary committee earlier this month said “a legislative response is needed because survivors’ requests to sever their abusers’ remote vehicle access are routinely being denied by car manufacturers.”

California appears to be the only state currently considering legislation to protect domestic violence survivors from connected vehicle control and tracking, according to National Network to End Domestic Violence. Two similar bills considered in the Wisconsin state legislature—SB 1033 and AB 1035—failed to pass before the end of the legislative calendar year.

Automakers do not oppose legislation that requires them to turn off location tracking for abusers, said Alliance for Automotive Innovation lobbyist John Moffatt at a committee hearing earlier this month, but lawmakers need to combine proposed laws.

“We cannot comply with all three bills,” Moffatt said. 

Unlike SB 1394, the Assembly bill would allow people who don’t own the car to end remote access and require severance of location tracking immediately inside the car or within one day when that’s considered technically infeasible. The initial version of the bill required automakers to cut the connection within two days, but privacy committee staff urged amendments to strengthen the bill with an option to immediately sever remote access inside the car and give survivors seven days to provide an affidavit.

“The inability of consumers to control the access and use of their own personal data poses a threat to safety, and in the case of survivors, it can mean life or death,” Assembly privacy and consumer protection committee staff said in an analysis of the bill ahead of the meeting.

Survivors who seek protection under AB 3139 would have to make sworn statements and get an affidavit from a licensed medical provider, social worker, or victim services provider; or a copy of a police report or restraining order within seven days. Otherwise, the remote access and location tracking services will be restored. Auto manufacturers who fail to comply may face penalties between $50,000 to $100,000 for each violation.

Both bills to disable vehicle tracking build on a 2022 federal law that allows severance of a phone number from a family cell plan.

Awareness about the risks to survivors posed by connected cars is growing following a series of high profile cases. A New York Times story published in December 2023 detailed the account of a woman whose Mercedes Benz was tracked by an abusive partner despite a restraining order, requests by police, and documentation that the car was exclusively granted to her in divorce proceedings. In the same month Reuters told the story of a San Francisco woman denied an end to location tracking of her Tesla despite a restraining order.

The need for a legislative solution to this problem became clear last summer, said Adam Dodge, CEO of the nonprofit Ending Tech-Enabled Abuse, after survivors and shelter leaders expressed concern that internet-connected cars can lead abusers to shelters at confidential locations, compromising the safety of staff and survivors. Numerous advocates and survivors who spoke to CalMatters agreed.

Stephanie Davidson, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said she’s encountered multiple shelters with a policy that survivors can no longer park their vehicle there and said connected cars can complicate admission.

One woman CalMatters spoke with, who now works with domestic survivors in Texas but used to live in Los Angeles, recalled several instances in which an ex-partner was able to track her down that she cannot explain. On one occasion, she parked her Lexus at a confidential survivor shelter in a garage behind a gate not visible from the street—yet she said her court advocate spotted him nearby.

Dodge also said he repeatedly heard stories of domestic violence victims granted permission to use a vehicle in a restraining order but still tracked by their abuser. 

“It puts them in a disempowered position of having to choose between transportation and safetyand most of the time they choose transportation because it’s really hard to forgo your vehicle when you’re trying to rebuild your life after experiencing abuse,” he said.

A vehicle can be essential for a domestic violence survivor when leaving, the most dangerous time for people in an abusive relationship. Multiple survivors told CalMatters that vehicle access is also essential to finding a job and gaining long-term financial independence after they leave.

Dodge said he’s in talks with a member of Congress about proposing federal legislation that requires automakers to sever location tracking for survivors, but he believes passing a law in California seems more realistic.

In addition to legislative proposals, the enforcement division of the California Privacy Protection Agency launched an investigation in auto manufacturers last summer, and Federal Communications Commission Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel introduced rules for car manufacturers last month aimed at prevention of domestic abuse.

The list of AB 3139 supporters includes the Consumer Federation of California and Oakland Privacy. Hayley Tsukayama, an associate director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the bill well-intentioned but expressed concerns about implementation. 

The Senate bill that would end vehicle tracking under a restraining order is supported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the UC Irvine School of Law Domestic Violence Clinic, and the nonprofit Ending Tech-Enabled Abuse. The bill was crafted with input from dozens of survivors who experienced abuse due to remote access or location tracking, said professor Jane Stoever, director of the University of California, Irvine Law School Domestic Violence Clinic, an organization that has cosponsored roughly a dozen California bills. 

Stoever has taught domestic violence clinics for two decades and said SB 1349 intends to create a straightforward process for survivors because there is no imperative for car manufacturers to act.

She said the clause in SB 1349 that calls for action within two business days comes from the standard under federal law. She said two days is an expedited timeline and less likely to result in car manufacturers requesting an extension. She wouldn’t oppose an approach that allows severing access quicker than in two days as privacy committee staff recommend, but fears misuse of a law that lacks a burden of proof.

If a survivor suspects or finds out the car they’re in is being followed, she said there are a few pathways to safety: You can go to police, and state-funded domestic violence agencies have public locations, but advised against going to a confidential shelter location because that could put others in danger.

“I always consider how any proposed law could be used against my clients,” Stoever said. “We want to help survivors to safety but recognize property interests and drafted SB 1394 having in mind the due process a temporary or permanent court order provides.”

Clarification: April 30, 2024

The description of Senate Bill 1394 and how it works was expanded to include more examples and details.

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