- - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Modern technology has given Big Brother a growth spurt; he’s now bigger than ever. And he’s added Big Data as a key member of Uncle Sam’s family.

Every day government bureaucracies, just like our intelligence agencies, tap into our information with little restriction from Congress. A “Digital Bill of Privacy Rights” might help, but in the meantime regulators freely apply technology to learn things that we may not even know about ourselves. Bureaucrats can access our personal finances, driving habits, communications and more.

Hollywood films often spotlight technology’s threats to freedom and privacy. What once was fiction quickly has become reality.

Start with black boxes. They’re not just for airplanes like the ill-fated German airliner that crashed in the French Alps. Most cars on American roads (and 92 percent of those manufactured since 2010) now have an “event data recorder” (EDR), an unadvertised feature installed voluntarily by most automakers. EDRs will become mandatory in all new cars under regulations proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in December 2012, which could be made final at any time.

EDRs record a constant loop of what’s happening to your car, creating a permanent record saved whenever the airbags are activated. They monitor speed, braking, acceleration, seat-belt use and more. If you want to avoid them, you must buy a Volkswagen or pay a stratospheric price for a Ferrari or Maserati, because those are the only automakers not installing EDRs already.

Insurance companies seek EDR data routinely to investigate accident claims. Law enforcement officials are aware of this information and tap into it. Privacy advocates worry that it’s unconstitutional self-incrimination if your own car is forced to “testify” against you. Fifteen states restrict access to EDR without an owner’s consent or a court order.


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Why does the NHTSA want to mandate these millions of black boxes? They say it’s to collect data which can be used to design safer cars.

But most cars have them already and most EDR data is never retrieved. Collecting it all would require adding a mandate that data from millions of accidents each year must be transmitted to a central government repository. That’s a parallel to the vast warehouses of email and telephone metadata being intercepted by our government’s intelligence services.

A mandate also creates the potential for real-time government monitoring of our driving, especially as in-car Internet becomes common.

AAA, the drivers’ lobby, already offers its California and Texas members a way to tap into EDR information in real time through a computer app, so that parents can monitor teen drivers. The rest of us could be next, with Uncle Sam playing the role of our parent.

Another member of Big Brother’s family is CFPB, the Obama-esque Consumer Financial Protection Board. The CFPB is assembling financial records about millions of Americans, which they claim are needed to find how to best protect us against the behemoths of the financial industry.

Together with the Federal Housing Finance Agency, CFPB established the National Mortgage Database Program. This massive database covers home mortgages going back to 1998. It is the mother lode of data, including things you may not know about yourself. It includes your name, address, telephone numbers, birth date, race/ethnicity, gender, language, religion, Social Security number, education records, military records, employment records, bank account numbers, bank balances, your financial history, recent events in your life, your other assets, mortgage details, credit card balance and payments, details about who lives in your household, the size of your home, number of bedrooms, etc.

Bureaucrats assure us that this treasure trove of personal data is safe from identity thieves. That’s the same assurance given by the Postal Service, Veterans Administration, State Department, Social Security Administration and all the other federal agencies hacked during the past year (just like Target, Home Depot, SONY, and other businesses). But even if the data are secure, the CFPB is not protecting us by snooping into our lives.

Another next step could be a mandate for just-announced technology in a new car from Ford Motors that forces the driver to stay within the speed limit. Sensors read the road signs and take control of your engine. How long until NHTSA makes this mandatory on all new cars?

The marriage of bureaucracy and technology is a brave new world. When government can monitor us, it can constantly punish us for “misbehavior” as defined by our bureaucrat betters. It’s bad enough to suffer enforced conformity because of political correctness. But unless we get ahead of the technology and establish a Digital Bill of Privacy Rights, there will be no escape from Big Brother.

Former Congressman Ernest Istook is president of Americans for Less Regulation.

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