Ballot Initiatives

Massachusetts Voters Will Decide (Again) Who Is Allowed To Fix Their Cars

The costly fight over a “right to repair” proposal has led to a lot of cybersecurity fearmongering.


Millions of dollars are being spent to woo Massachusetts voters over a ballot proposition not about taxes, drug policy, or labor laws, but about how your car gets repaired and who is allowed to access your car's data.

This November, Massachusetts voters will vote on a "right to repair" initiative, Question 1, that would establish that car manufacturers have to permit vehicle owners and independent repair facilities to access a car's diagnostic data.

Supporting Question 1 is a coalition of auto parts stores and independent repairers who say they're being left behind as auto manufacturers choose who can be authorized to access the increasingly complex computerized data. Supporters have contributed more than $21 million to get Question 1 passed.

Opposing Question 1 is a group of auto manufacturers (including General Motors, Ford, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan) under the umbrella of the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data. They have contributed more than $25 million to defeat the effort.

Massachusetts voters already weighed in on this in 2012 and voted to allow consumers and auto repair shops to have open access to vehicle diagnostic data. But over the past few years, auto manufacturers have increasingly implemented systems that transmit a car's diagnostic information wirelessly to remote locations—known as telematics, technology also used for GPS tracking.

Now auto manufacturers are controlling who can access or receive this wirelessly collected data, which gives them the power to pick and choose who can repair cars, regardless of what consumers might want. So, this new ballot initiative will require that automakers, starting in 2022, have an open access data platform for third parties and owners to also see the data.

This fight has turned into a massive fear-driven campaign. Question 1 supporters say that carmakers are trying to force consumers to go to car dealerships for repairs and pay their higher costs. Auto manufacturers insist this is not true and that there will still be plenty of choices for car repairs.

Opponents of Question 1 are bluntly and sensationally warning that if the initiative passes, your car's data may be accessed by hackers who can use the information to stalk you and break into your home. They've even gone so far as to claim that it will allow domestic abusers to access geolocation data from vehicles to track their victims. This isn't true: According to the Boston Globe, these claims are in reference to a failed "license to repair" bill from California from 2014 that required that geolocation data be made available. Question 1 does not include such demands.

Beyond the fearmongering, there are genuine concerns that increasing access to a car's data could set the platform up for cybersecurity vulnerabilities. But that's an argument about being careful with technological development, not an excuse for depriving consumers of access to the data produced by the vehicles that they own. Jennifer King, who works at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, told the Boston Globe in September that these complaints are an example of "security fearmongering."

"In theory, the fears that are being articulated could come true—if you build this platform with no security. But that would be really stupid," King said. A group of cybersecurity experts signed onto a letter to the editor published in the Boston Herald declaring that "this small expansion to the state's right to repair law in no way increases the risk of identity theft, cyber stalking or vehicle hacking."

Polling currently shows broad support for passing Question 1. But if you're confused as to why $50 million is being spent in this fight, after Massachusetts passed its previous "right to repair" law, auto manufacturers signed a memo saying they would make their laws compliant with the 2012 proposition across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., in an attempt to stop a patchwork of different ballot initiatives and laws passing elsewhere. So though Massachusetts is the sole state to adopt such "right to repair" laws, everybody will benefit.