Blog: Collective Disease Incorporated
by Lapis

Car Privacy Invasion

Big Brother even extends to your cars. Add satelite tracking to this and you have a recipie for spying on you from afar.

Date:   7/13/2006 6:19:30 PM   ( 15 y ) ... viewed 2032 times

'Black boxes' in cars raise concerns about privacy

Most motorists not aware actions before accidents are recorded

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, July 2, 2006

By REBECCA CARR Cox News Service

WASHINGTON – A privacy battle is brewing over devices being installed in most new cars that record how drivers react in the seconds leading up to accidents.

Federal safety experts love the so-called black boxes because they can determine such things as whether drivers in a crash wore seat belts, exceeded the speed limit or accelerated when they should have braked.

But privacy groups, consumer advocates and lawmakers say most motorists have no idea that the black boxes are recording their movements.

"I am willing to bet that most members of Congress don't know that there are black boxes in most new cars," said Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass. Mr. Capuano is worried that the information will be misused and violate individual privacy rights.

"What's next, a GPS [Global Positioning System] in my suit jacket?" he asked.

Mr. Capuano plans to introduce legislation with Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., in the coming weeks that would require automakers to inform consumers about the existence of the recording devices and how to disable them.

The black boxes, formally called "event data recorders" (EDRs), are raising concerns among consumer and privacy rights groups about who can access the collected information and how that information can be used.

It's a big issue because the black boxes, which are small enough to hold in your hand, have been installed in an estimated 40 million cars since the mid-1990s.

By all accounts, the devices make it easier for police and insurance companies to figure out what went wrong in an accident and who is at fault.

Use by insurers

Privacy advocates worry that they would allow insurance companies to infer bad driving habits even if a driver has never been cited.

That could lead to imposing higher insurance rates or refusing to provide insurance, even though a driver might have a clean record, said Eric Skrum, spokesman for the National Motorists Association, a Wisconsin-based motorists' rights group.

"Most people don't know that black boxes exist for cars, so most don't understand the ramifications," Mr. Skrum said.

The devices capture up to 10 seconds immediately before an accident and 300 milliseconds of data during an actual crash. Unlike the flight data recorders in airplanes, the boxes do not record conversations or locations of the car.

But in the future, Mr. Skrum said, the information could be linked to the Global Positioning System to track where the car went in addition to the driver's behavior.

"That information could be shared with your insurance carrier, and your rates can go up," Mr. Skrum said.

The insurance industry is taking a wait-and-see approach to the data recorders. It wants to learn how the government will regulate the boxes' use before using their data.

"This is not a widespread industry movement," said Patricia Borowski, a senior vice president with the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents, which represents 15,000 agencies across the country.

Tracking programs

Ms. Borowski said that a handful of insurance carriers have begun offering customers the option of receiving a discount for volunteering the information in their recorders. But the program hasn't been very popular.

"Most people think they are far better drivers than they are," Mr. Borowski said. "Just because I don't get a ticket or get in an accident does not mean that 24/7 I am alert and don't make a mistake. I know that I am not perfect."

There should at least be notification to car buyers that their cars have event data recorders, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research center based in Washington.

Mr. Rotenberg asks why there are no safeguards to ensure that the information captured is accurate.

"The bottom line is, I don't think people want their cars spying on them," Mr. Rotenberg said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is balancing those concerns with the agency's desire to improve highway safety.

The agency is expected to issue new rules this summer on the use of event data recorders in an effort to standardize the information that is stored by the devices.

"They can certainly provide us with significant data about crashes," said Eric Bolton, a NHTSA spokesman. The agency would be very interested in obtaining information from the devices to better understand the reasons for car accidents, he said.

Automakers' position

Automakers believe that the information recorded on the devices is useful and belongs to the customer – and should be used only with the car owner's permission.

"The data obtained through the use of EDRs helps manufacturers enhance safety of automobiles," said Charles Territo, director of communications for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington-based trade group. "It gives a better understanding of crash events and how to avoid injuries."

Privacy concerns prompted California to pass legislation in 2004 that requires car manufacturers to disclose whether the devices have been installed. The law also prohibits disclosure of the data without the car owner's permission or a court order.

In addition, California and New York passed laws that prohibit rental car companies from using electronic surveillance to impose penalties if, for instance, a renter is driving erratically.

Maine, New Hampshire and Virginia have enacted similar measures. At least 20 other states are considering legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, based in Denver.

Automakers hope to avoid a patchwork of state laws. That is one reason Mr. Capuano and Ms. Bono expect to see their bill gain traction. Two years ago, a similar measure sponsored by the pair failed to make it out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"Many motorists are unaware that their driving habits are being monitored and recorded by black boxes in their cars," Ms. Bono said.

The devices are designed to fine-tune safety systems, not reconstruct accidents, said Daniel Jarvis of Ford Motor Co.

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