Thursday, October 07, 2004

Will 'Big Brother' Be Watching You?

Will Big Brother Be Watching You?
By Brock Yates Published 10/06/2004

I like to believe that I operate within reasonable limits of paranoia, although my threat meter often spiked when I scan the dashboard of my hopelessly politically-incorrect, road-crushing, fuel-swilling Hummer H2. There lies a small blue and white button marked 'On Star'. This, by all rational measurements, is a helpful link to all manner of roadside needs; emergency calls, lost destinations, even the nearest motel or fast food restaurant. The epitome of high-tech salvation to the normal motorist.

There is no question that "On Star" -- now offered on most General Motors products and other makes -- is an innocent accessory to many basic motoring needs and surely a major aid in the event of a crash or other serious roadside incident.

But beyond that one can never forget that little blue button is the link to a satellite that theoretically tracks the location of the subject vehicle at all times, day and night. At this point it is a benign and beneficial technology, but with a large-scale potential to become a malevolent Big Brother.

"On Star" technology makes sense within limits, but there is another technically-related computer package now mounted in over 40 million private cars that poses a serious threat to civil libertarians and privacy nuts. It is a cigarette-sized packet stowed under the instrument panel called an "EDR" or "Event Data Recorder." This tiny box makes a constant, 10-second recording of such routine functions as vehicle and engine speed, braking function, throttle activation, seat belt status and any air-bag deployments. Advocates of EDRs like the National Transportation Safety Board claim that, like aircraft flight recorders, these units are invaluable in diagnosing the cause of automobile accidents and determining if any of the participants were breaking the law; i.e. with excessive speed, no seat belts, inattention, etc.

But those who fear Big Brother intrusions into our daily lives are concerned that such data -- which can theoretically be incorrect -- will be used by trial lawyers to sue and law enforcement types to make arrests.

Moreover, most car buyers have no idea that this snoop lurks in their automobiles. Only California requires that owner's manuals deal with EDRs while the American Automobile Association (AAA) is demanding that the presence of EDRs be placed on window stickers of new cars and that the data be used only in broad-spectrum safety research and not in specific accident reports.

At this point the legal issues surrounding so-called EDR "Black Boxes" are unclear, but the potential for mischief based on new technology is vivid. For example, in the interest of "highway safety" it is within the technological realm to equip On-Star-like links to sophisticated EDRs and main-frame computers to monitor all motor vehicles all the time with regard to speed while tracking routes and destinations. A nice system for dealing with terrorists and chasing bank robbers, but does the average citizen want to reveal to Big Brother his or her every move in a motor vehicle?

At this point privacy advocates are strong enough to resist such technology. But they have been unable to prevent other probing of citizens via hidden cameras, sub-rosa finger-printing, DNA signatures, infra-red scans, etc. that at this point theoretically are used only to track criminals.

But if in the future the overweening "safety" movement reaches critical mass, you may have a serious Big Brother riding with you on every trip to the super market.