Black Boxes in Cars: A Question of Privacy

When Timothy P. Murray crashed his government-issued Ford Crown Victoria in 2011, he was fortunate, as car accidents go. Mr. Murray, then the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, was not seriously hurt, and he told the police he was wearing a seat belt and was not speeding.

But a different story soon emerged. Mr. Murray was driving over 100 miles an hour and was not wearing a seat belt, according to the computer in his car that tracks certain actions. He was given a $555 ticket; he later said he had fallen asleep.
The case put Mr. Murray at the center of a growing debate over a little-known but increasingly important piece of equipment buried deep in the innards of a car: the event data recorder, more commonly known as the black box.
About 96 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States have the boxes, and in September 2014, if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has its way, all will have them.
The boxes have long been used by car companies to assess the performance of their vehicles. But data stored in the devices is increasingly being used to identify safety problems in cars and as evidence in traffic accidents and criminal cases. And the trove of data inside the boxes has raised privacy concerns, including questions about who owns the information, and what it can be used for, even as critics have raised questions about its reliability.
To federal regulators, law enforcement authorities and insurance companies, the data is an indispensable tool to investigate crashes.
“E.D.R.'s provide critical safety information that might not otherwise be available to N.H.T.S.A. to evaluate what happened during a crash — and what future steps could be taken to save lives and prevent injuries,” David L. Strickland, the safety agency’s administrator, said in a statement.
But to consumer advocates, the data is only the latest example of governments and companies having too much access to private information. Once gathered, they say, the data can be used against car owners, to find fault in accidents or in criminal investigations.
“These cars are equipped with computers that collect massive amounts of data,” said Khaliah Barnes of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based consumer group. “Without protections, it can lead to all kinds of abuse.”
What’s more, consumer advocates say, government officials have yet to provide consistent guidelines over how the data should be used.
“There are no clear standards that say, this is a permissible use of the data and this is not,” Ms. Barnes said.
Fourteen states, including New York, have passed laws that say that, even though the data belongs to the vehicle’s owner, law enforcement officials and those involved in civil litigation can gain access to the black boxes with a court order.
In these states, lawyers may subpoena the data for criminal investigations and civil lawsuits, making the information accessible to third parties, including law enforcement or insurance companies that could cancel a driver’s policy or raise a driver’s premium based on the recorder’s data.
In Mr. Murray’s case, a court order was not required to release the data to investigators. Massachusetts is not among the states to pass a law governing access to the data. Asked about the incident, Mr. Murray, who did not contest the ticket and who resigned as lieutenant governor in June to become head of the Chamber of Commerce in Worcester, Mass., declined to comment.
Most states require that the presence of the black box be disclosed in the owner’s manual. But the vast majority of drivers who do not read the manual thoroughly may not know that their vehicle can capture and record their speed, brake position, seat belt use and other data each time they get behind the wheel.
Unlike the black boxes on airplanes, which continually record data including audio and video, the cars’ recorders capture only the few seconds surrounding a crash or air bag deployment. A separate device extracts the data, which is then analyzed through computer software programs.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington-based trade association which represents 12 automakers including General Motors and the Chrysler Group, said it supports the mandate because the recorders help them monitor passenger safety.
 
By Jaclyn Trop
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