Car black boxes: Privacy nightmare or a safety measure?

Privacy advocates are concerned about the potential for abuse of information collected by black box event data recorders in cars. Safety advocates say the devices will save lives.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

What if the black box in your new car becomes a tool to invade your privacy? What if, on the other hand, it winds up saving your life after an accident?

Those are some of the questions being raised this week over black box data event recorders in cars. Privacy advocates worried on Thursday that the data could be misused. Safety advocates argued on Friday that a watered-down version of the recorders would slow safety innovations.

In the former camp is the Electronic Frontier Foundation and this scenario: The friend you loaned your BMW to decides to create his own ultimate driving experience, and your insurance rises because of his 120 mph freeway jaunt.


San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (their motto: Defending your rights in the digital world) is concerned because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to make black box event data recorders mandatory for all cars.

Nate Cardozo, staff attorney for Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that the black boxes track such information as accelerator pedal position, brake pedal position, engine rpms, vehicle speed and acceleration, whether seat belts are connected, whether air bags deployed, and a lot more.

The foundation’s concerns include the fact that there is currently no cap on the amount of data collected and there are no limits on the kind of data that will be gathered, Cardozo said.

“The car manufacturers can use that data at will, including location, which has significant privacy implications,” Cardozo said, which led to the scenario of a speed jaunt finding its way into the hands of an auto insurance company.

“The car owner should be the one controlling access to the data,” Cardozo said.

But others praise the black boxes as probable lifesavers that could have prevented many tragedies and shortened many safety investigations in the past, if the technology had been available sooner.

“If we had these event data recorders, we would have picked up on child deaths from air bags much sooner,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

Ditlow added that it took the NHTSA more than three decades to set a standard for better interior padding in cars to prevent injury, noting that black boxes would have zeroed in on the problem quickly.

Ditlow added that problems involved in auto safety recalls, which often track a hazard over several model years, would be discovered much faster.

“They will have a huge safety payoff,” Ditlow said. “If you can combine crash recorder data with auto crash notification systems, like OnStar, if you can get medical care delivered faster, you will save lives.”


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