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Infotainment Forensics: Your car is listening

Last week the news broke that Jack Sweeney, a 19-year-old Florida teenager has been able to track the movements of roughly 40 planes and helicopters linked to Russian oligarchs, including the richest man in Russia…and even the planes that might be used by Vladimir Putin himself.  His @RUOligarchJets and @Putinjet accounts have amassed well over 200,000 followers to date and rely on Twitter bots that he made after Russia invaded Ukraine.  It appears that no amount of wealth or power can guarantee one’s privacy in 2022…and so it goes with the rest of us regular folk.

As we hurtle down the road of digital technology involving ever-increasing ways to connect and communicate via our smart phones and other devices, the implications for privacy and security seem to be evolving at the same rapid pace.   We now live in an era where “outsiders” have the capability to access such personal detailed information as where we live, which doctor’s office we’ve visited this week, what route we took to get there, and even our recent text stream conversations…all without even having to confiscate our cell phones!  This digital data becomes embedded in the “carputer” as we connect to Bluetooth or USB port without a second thought and go about the business of our daily commutes, never out of reach or out of touch.  But this ever-connectedness now has transformative implications for accident reconstruction and criminal investigations. Welcome to the brave new world of IVI, or in-vehicle infotainment.

First, a brief history of how we got here.  Long before IVI appeared on the scene, vehicular telematics systems (the so-called “black boxes”) were developed.  Originally created for military vehicles in the 1960’s during the height of the cold war, they became more widespread for civilian vehicles about two decades later.  So, engineers have long been investigating accident causation, relying on telematics that store a significant amount of data including navigation, speed, acceleration/deceleration and braking information, when and where lights were switched on, doors opened, seat belts buckled, and airbags deployed.  

Infotainment (IVI), which first appeared in 2006 (about 75 years after the first AM car radio was an added “luxury” perk in the burgeoning car industry of the 1930’s), is a collection of hardware and software that provides audio and video entertainment.  Combined with telematics, IVI can provide a much more complete and thorough picture of what went wrong in the accident reconstruction phase of an investigation.  Navigation systems, video players, USB and Bluetooth connectivity, Internet and Wi-Fi are all a part of IVI, including features like handsfree voice control, steering wheel audio controls and even touch screens.  In this era of smartphones, most people probably don’t realize that their vehicle is recording and transmitting every transaction if they are connected to Bluetooth or USB and this data can be accessed later — even when the phone has been removed from the car.  Recent destinations, call logs, contacts, texts and emails, voice commands, even web histories are there for the taking.

There are fascinating documented cases of pivotal criminal evidence being downloaded from vehicles.  One involved the voice command feature of ONSTAR where the criminal’s vocally recorded request for directions to a specific address led police to a weapon buried in the back yard.  Another time, a home invasion investigation was solved when authorities were able to determine the timing and sequence of opening and closing rear doors on a vehicle where the driver stated that he was sitting in a car alone.  

Today, it is estimated that more than 14,000 vehicle models can be accessed through their IVI systems, from a wide variety of car manufacturers including General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.  There’s no going back.  We’d best remember to be on our best behavior and abstain from distracted driving.  The very technology that keeps us entertained in the car may well tell our whole story in the end.CED technologies has vast experience investigating vehicular accidents and is well-versed in the emerging field of infotainment forensics.  For more information, come visit us on the web at

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