Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Black boxes' in automobiles intrusive hitchhikers?

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If you happen to read every word of your new car owner's manual, then you already know your car may be monitoring your driving habits.

If you're like most people on the planet, though, it will come as a surprise that a box the size of a deck of cards -- called an event data recorder -- is on board, tracking your seatbelt use, speed, steering, braking and at least a dozen other bits of data. When your airbag deploys, the EDR's memory records a few seconds before, during and after a crash, much like an airliner's "black box."

This a handy tool for analyzing the cause and effect of crashes. It can be used to improve safety technology. But its presence is not entirely benign. The data have many other potential uses -- for insurance companies, lawyers and police, for instance -- and it's up for grabs.

The EDR is the only part of your car you don't necessarily own. Just 13 states have laws on the issue, and fewer -- Oregon and North Dakota, for example -- offer strong privacy protection. The devices, part of a car's electronic system, are almost impossible to remove.

Last month, the U.S. federal government proposed all new passenger vehicles be equipped with the devices. But 96 per cent of new cars already have them, as do at least 150 million older vehicles. American makers, led by GM and Ford, have been putting them in cars since the mid-1990s.

What the federal government ought to do is ensure car buyers get prominent disclosure before they buy and privacy protections are in place. But the trend is in the opposite direction.

In 2006, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration first proposed regulating black boxes, it rejected calls for pre-purchase disclosure and opted for requiring a few obscure paragraphs in the owner's manual. It gave carmakers six years to comply.

The agency says it has no authority to regulate privacy. But it has not sought any, nor alerted Congress to the need for legislation.

The chaotic results are apparent in courts and in high-profile crashes. In a 2011 crash, Massachusetts Lt.-Gov. Timothy Murray, who said he was belted in and driving the speed limit, was contradicted by an EDR. The government-owned Ford Crown Victoria's recorder found the car was travelling more than 160 km/h and Murray wasn't belted in.

OK, so comeuppance for a politician doesn't sound so bad. But what about your own car? Should police be able to grab those data without a warrant? Should insurers access it so they can raise your rates?

Courts are all over the place. Two New York courts have ruled warrants are not needed. Many prosecutors, not surprisingly, argue drivers have no expectation of privacy on public roads.

In California, an appeals court tossed out a drunken-driving manslaughter conviction because police failed to get a warrant for the box.

Proponents of black boxes argue they aren't all that intrusive. Maybe so, today. But technology never stands still. GPS in cellphones was originally advanced as a safety feature so callers to 911 could be quickly located. But location identification is now used in all sorts of third-party apps. People's movements are easily tracked. It wouldn't take much to tweak EDRs for equally broad uses. They could record more. Some insurers are offering customers a cousin of the EDR, which tracks how a car is driven over a long period, so volunteer participants may qualify for lower rates.

Two things are certain. Black boxes are here to stay. And without strict rules of the road, they are less a boon to safety than an intrusive hitchhiker.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 8, 2013 A7

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