Home > Big Brother > Privacy Concerns Surface with Government Plan to Install “Black Box” Monitors in All New Cars

Privacy Concerns Surface with Government Plan to Install “Black Box” Monitors in All New Cars

December 27, 2012


Investigator inspecting a black box taken from a 2008 Toyota Avalon involved in a fatal 2009 car accident in Euless, Texas (AP Photo)

Federal safety regulators want all new cars installed with so-called “black boxes,” similar to those on airplanes, to help the government and auto manufacturers learn valuable lessons from accidents on the road. But the idea has stirred concerns among consumer groups and civil libertarians who fear the data in the black boxes might be used inappropriately unless legal safeguards are established.


Under a new rule (pdf) proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), carmakers would be required to equip all new vehicles with “event data recorders” (EDRs) starting in September 2014. Some new automobiles already have a black box, although their owners may not be aware of it. Automakers began installing them in the early 1990s, but they weren’t required to disclose their existence in the car owner’s manual.


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wants that to change, with consumers being better informed about the EDR’s presence. Increasingly, black box data is being used in criminal cases and lawsuits, including those involving high-profile individuals.


NHTSA officials say expanding the use of the data recorders in all new cars and trucks will help them better assess the cause of accidents. The boxes have heretofore recorded a vehicle’s speed, its location and total number of passengers at the time of an accident. There will now be a requirement that 15 types of data be recorded.


Privacy advocates say they will support the proposal as long as certain measures are adopted. For instance, they don’t want the data in the black boxes to be used by marketers.


“You should not think of this as being an opportunity to sell data to auto-insurance companies for risk evaluation. That’s a real possibility. Data is valuable,” Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Wired.


“More importantly, we need to clearly establish the principle that the data on these black box computers belongs to the person who owns the car,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, wrote. “When you buy a car, you also buy the many computers that, increasingly, run that car. The data on your EDR should belong to you—and be no more accessible to the police or anyone else without a warrant, or your consent, than the data on the laptop sitting on the seat next to you.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Feds Requiring ‘Black Boxes’ in All Motor Vehicles (by David Kravets, Wired)

Department of Transportation Notice (Federal Register) (pdf)

A Look at the Issues Raised by ‘Black Boxes’ in Cars (by Jay Stanley, ACLU)

Car Black Boxes Raise Privacy Concerns (by Joan Lowy, Associated Press)

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