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NHTSA 'black box' proposal stirs privacy concerns

Federal agency wants to make Electronic Data Recorders mandatory by September 2014, but the law is a little too vague for comfort.

By Douglas Newcomb Dec 17, 2012 6:25AM

Electronic Data Recorder. Photo by Harris Technical Services.The term “black box” conjures thoughts of a device secretly recording your every move in a car. In reality, Event Data Recorders (EDRs), as they are officially known, only record specific info -- such as seat belt usage, vehicle speed, braking, steering and other factors -- a short time after they’re activated in an accident.

They’re designed to provide detailed information about accidents that allows automakers to improve vehicle safety systems such as air bags and also aid in recalls.

Currently, EDRs are not required by federal law, although many cars include them.

Since 2006, the federal government has required that automakers that include EDRs let car owners know of their existence in a vehicle via the owner’s manual. Since September 2011, the feds have required that all EDRs record the same data points in a consistent manner.

The battle over black boxes and car owner privacy is intensifying since the White House approved a proposal last week from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that would require EDRs in all new light vehicles by Sept. 1, 2014. But before moving forward, motorist organizations want to ensure owner privacy, understand who owns the data and specify who can access it.

AAA said in a press release that it supports NHTSA's goal of requiring black box recorders on new vehicles. But the organization is urging that any regulation include provisions to protect consumer privacy before going into effect.

"Data recording devices play a critical role in advancing vehicle safety, but motorists should own the data their vehicle generates," AAA president and CEO Robert Darbelnet said in a statement. "Congress needs to ensure motorist rights are protected by passing legislation that prohibits access to data without permission from the owner or from a court order, unless the data is used for research purposes and cannot be tracked to a single vehicle."

Darbelnet also added that automakers should be required to "disclose the existence of EDR devices on new vehicles, not just with a sentence in the owner’s manual."

Dorothy Glancy, a professor at Santa Clara University Law School in California who is nationally known for her extensive work in the area of privacy and transportation law, expressed concern over the wording of an earlier draft of the NHTSA proposal, saying that its provisions on privacy protection contain too many loopholes and are too vague.

“It’s just not very well written,” Glancy told MSN Autos. “It says, ‘The court authorizes retrieval in furtherance of some unknown legal proceeding.’ This means someone could get your black box data -- or ask for your black box -- in connection with a legal proceeding between two other people."

Glancy is particularly concerned about loopholes in the section that addresses privacy. "It says, ‘The information is retrieved for the purpose of determining the need for or facilitating emergency medical response in response to a motor vehicle crash.’ It’s just wide open as to what it might mean," she added. "It could say that the information is retrieved is connection with a motor vehicle crash to respond to the needs of the people in that crash. But it doesn’t say that.”

She also noted that a Court of Appeals case in California held that the police need a warrant to access black box data. "But I've been doing some research into this," Glancy said, "and [police] have been regularly accessing black box data in connection with vehicular manslaughter cases without a warrant."

The White House Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing the EDR proposal from NHTSA, and the public has 60 days to submit comments on the NHTSA proposal. During that time, it’s bound to spark plenty of debate on privacy issues.

Whatever is ultimately decided on Capitol Hill in regard to car black boxes will inevitably have consequences on the roads -- and in courthouses -- throughout the country.

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

Dec 17, 2012 8:31AM
Better not hear any griping about this from the knuckleheads that voted Obummer back for another term. You voted for more government intervention in our personal lives, well here it comes.
   You are responsible for them getting into the auto business, health care business, black boxes in your personal vehicle and don't be surprised when they decide just how much alcohol, cigarettes, coca-cola etc. that you can have because those things are raising the cost of health care. Oh, and your right to bear arms, their scheming on ways to take that away from you as well.
  Obama will go down as one of the worst presidents that we have ever had when it comes to managing our money and now that he has failed so miserably, if we fall off this financial cliff, wait and see what happens to the middle class taxes that he promised not to raise. If you make $65k up to $108k a year, your taxes are going to jump by $300 a month. If your household income is more than $108k, hang on.....your taxes will go up by $14k a year!!
  Congrats on putting this guy in office for another four years, you must be sooo proud of your victory! I can't believe that so many fell for his B.S. about not raising taxes on the middle class.

Dec 17, 2012 8:56AM

Yeah, I did'nt vote for the buffoon either, Frosty. I don't anyone who did. Maybe there shoulda been data recorders at the voting machines.

Anyway, data recorders have lived inside airbag controllers since day one. The function is used to protect manufacturer's against liability suits. I have personally worked with many accident and insurance investigators in retrieving flight recorder data. Where this is going, I don't know. I certainly don't trust anything the prez says.

Merry Christmas and happy New Year, Frosty!

Dec 17, 2012 4:57PM

It's only a matter of time when we'll see a tutorial on multiple video sites on how to bypass the new blackboxes.  This has been done already with: stock radios, Engine Control Units, car alarms, seatbelt reminders, Video playing on the indash headunit when the driver is driving, etc.....

Dec 18, 2012 7:41AM

Why would I care if someone found out I went to the porno store last tuesday at 12:05 I'll probably be dead anyway if they are looking at it. Sometimes we take privacy issues to serious ...what are people doing with there cars that is so secret.

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