EDITORIAL: Black boxes turn cars into tattle tools

Government-mandated data recorders could threaten driver privacy

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Cellphones can track our conversations and whereabouts, but they’re not the only devices that have gotten too smart for our own good. Uncle Sam is planning to mandate data recorders as standard equipment in all new vehicles to snoop on the driving habits of the public. Before that happens, legal roadblocks should be put in place to prevent Americans’ personal information from falling into the wrong hands.

Most cars are already equipped with an event-data recorder, a device similar to the “black box” installed in aircraft that reveals what went wrong in a crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to force all cars manufactured in the United States after Sept. 1, 2014, to carry one. The period for public comments on the proposed regulation ended Monday.

The cigarette-pack-sized machines can help authorities locate a vehicle in the event of an emergency. They also collect data on speed, steering, braking and seat-belt use — handy information in determining the cause of a fender-bender. Proposed rules say the recorder should store and report data recorded at least 30 seconds prior to an accident. As the devices have become more advanced, however, some have also become more invasive, keeping tabs on occupants’ use of the Internet and radio during driving, for example. While most units are accessed through a plug-in port, more sophisticated models can transmit data wirelessly to an information center, as the OnStar system can do in the event of a crash.

As the volume of data collected by black boxes has risen, questions about who may access it have become increasingly crucial. Transportation officials claim the information will lead to improved vehicle safety, and investigators have an obvious desire for evidence of the cause of road mishaps. Others want to the information for profit, like auto-insurance companies that crave a peek at policyholders’ driving habits so they can raise rates. It’s only a matter of time before some government agency realizes it can bypass the need for pricey speed cameras by having automobiles automatically issue speeding tickets to their own drivers.

Only 13 states have laws protecting vehicle owners from open access to event-data recorder information. Many of those have exceptions that allow access with owner consent or court order, or for repair-shop diagnosis, vehicle-safety research or dispatching of emergency medical personnel. A few states prohibit insurance companies from demanding data before paying a claim.

Most states, however, impose no restrictions that would prevent black boxes from becoming onboard spy devices. That’s why privacy laws need to be updated and reinforced. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Maracich v. Spears, a case contesting the definition of “personal information” that state motor vehicle departments may release under the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act. A ruling that narrows interpretation of the kinds of data that can be made public could spur states to follow suit.

Government’s first instinct is always to overreach, particularly when it comes to matters of privacy. It makes sense to limit the snooping before it becomes a major problem.

The Washington Times

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