Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Your Car May Have a Secret 'Black Box'


Big Brother on board

If you drive a late-model car, it probably has a "black box" the size of acigarette pack that's monitoring your speed, braking, seat-belt use,steering and more. Forty million vehicles have them, including two-thirdsof all 2004 cars. Yet few motorists have any idea the "event datarecorders" are there.Those who like the recorders say data they collectcan sort out blame for accidents and lead to improved vehicle design.Probably true. But some troubling privacy questions are going unanswered.Can recorders monitor motorists against their will? Is the data being usedagainst unwitting drivers? Few guidelines exist.Like the devices or not,the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigatesaccident causes, wants them in every new vehicle, something - fortunately- that the agency can't order by itself.Privacy advocates raise theseconcerns:.Can insurers deny claims or raise a driver's premiums based oninformation the recorders access? Can police retrieve the device and useit in court? Can lawyers demand access to it in order to sue you?.Are carbuyers being informed? California is the only state so far to require thatowners' manuals notify motorists of a recorder's presence. The law alsorequires an owner's permission in most cases before authorities can gainaccess to the data.AAA, the nation's largest auto club, would go furtherand require that the presence of a recorder be prominently noted onnew-vehicle window stickers. It argues that the data should be used onlyfor safety research and not traced to specific drivers. The recorder"should belong to the car's owner who paid for it, the same as a muffler,"a spokesman for AAA says.Sensible thinking.Privacy safeguards haven't keptpace with technology that can monitor driver habits, location andidentity, and they aren't likely to emerge soon.The National HighwayTraffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which regulates auto safety, isducking the issue. After years of acknowledging serious concerns, it nowsays it doesn't have the legal authority to set any rules about them.Congress or the courts will have to act instead.Someone needs to act, andsoon.Black boxes have been showing up more frequently in prosecutions andcivil lawsuits, but rules vary widely. In a fatal Florida crash, a truckdriver was cleared of reckless driving when his recorder showed he wasdriving 60 mph instead of 90 mph, as a witness claimed. In Illinois, arecorder proved a hearse driver was speeding when he struck a police car,seriously injuring an officer.With measures to protect privacy and informcar owners, the recorders might be used effectively to improve safety andeven benefit good drivers. One insurer is testing a plan to providediscounts to motorists who voluntarily give it access to thedevices.That's a worthwhile idea. But at a minimum, drivers need to betold when a recorder is in their car. Nobody wants to car-pool with BigBrother.

Find this article at: http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2004-08-15-big-brother_x.htm