Federal regulators are proposing that new automobiles sold in the United States after September 2014 come equipped with black boxes, so-called “event data recorders” that chronicle everything from how fast a vehicle was traveling, the number of passengers and especially a car’s location.
While many automakers have voluntarily installed the devices already, the National Transportation Safety Agency wants to hear your comments by February 11 on its proposal mandating them in all vehicles. Congress has empowered the agency to set motor-vehicle-safety rules.
The Feds claim that regulators’ intentions are about safety, as the devices would trigger — for about 30 seconds — during so-called “events” such as during sudden breaking, acceleration, swerving or other types of driving that might lead to an accident. The data, which can either be downloaded remotely or by a physical connection, depending upon a vehicle’s model, can clearly be used to track your movements remotely and stored in a remote database allowing the Feds to maintain a permanent record of every place you have ever gone, the time and other people that were there at the same time.
Privacy advocates are raising the alarm bells, and want the agency to require data safeguards, including demands that data be anonymized, and to prohibit the marketing of it. There can never be any guarantee of that with todays warrantless wiretaps.
“You should not think of this as being an opportunity to sell data to auto-insurance companies for risk evaluation. That’s a real possibility. Data is valuable,” said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Submit your comments to the National Transportation Safety Agency here. Your comments are a public record.
Australian researcher David Warren invented the black box in 1953 to record airline cockpit noise and instruments during flight to help investigators solve crash mysteries. It was only a matter of time before they would be required in motor vehicles.
The vehicle black boxes — which are either tiny standalone devices or part of a vehicle’s computer system — are to record speed, engine throttle, breaking, ignition, safety belt usage, the number of passengers, airbag deployment, and among other things time of the recording and sometimes a passenger’s location, depending on a vehicle’s model.
According to NTSA, as the National Traffic Safety Agency is known, the “event data recorders” will be ”used to improve crash and defect investigation and crash data collection quality to assist safety researchers, vehicle manufacturers, and the agency to understand vehicle crashes better and more precisely. Additionally, vehicle manufacturers are able to utilize EDR data in improving vehicle designs and developing more effective vehicle safety countermeasures. EDR data can also be used by Advanced Automatic Crash Notification (AACN) systems to aid emergency response teams in assessing the severity of a crash and estimating the probability of serious injury before they reach the site of the crash.”
Still, questions remain about the black boxes and data. Among them, how long should a black box retain event data, who owns the data, can a motorist turn off the black box and can the authorities get the data without a warrant.
For the moment, it’s the Wild West, with few guidelines.
“You have all of these entities that can collect and use this data without any bounds on how this data can be used,” Coney said.
Just 13 states have some regulations about the black boxes. Many of them demand the manufacture disclose the existence of the black box and some require a motorists’ consent for the black-box data to be viewed by others.
Clearly, the black boxes tell a story and that story can be recorded in a permanent remote database.
Timothy Murray, the Massachusetts Lt. governor, claimed he was traveling within the speed limit and wearing his seatbelt after he crashed a state vehicle last year. The black box in the Crown Victoria captured data that Murray was going 100 mph without a seatbelt.
How the government finalizes rules about the black boxes might set scary precedent for other technologies, according to Jay Stanley, an American Civil Liberties Union policy analyst.
“Will devices serve the consumer/owner, or some other powerful interest such as the government or big companies?” he asked. “We don’t want to drift into a world in which our own possessions are riddled with computer chips acting in the interests of others — watching us, controlling us, and possibly snitching on us.”