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September 13, 2013

News & Features

Black-box mandate for new cars raises privacy concerns

New York Times News Service

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An accident reconstructionist removes the air bag control module from a test-crash training session for New York State Police investigators. (Heather Ainsworth / The New York Times)

When Timothy P. Murray crashed his government-issued Ford Crown Victoria in 2011, he was fortunate, as car accidents go. 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. Murray was driving more than 100 miles an hour and was not wearing a seat belt, according to the computer in his car that tracks certain actions.

The case put 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.

What black boxes record
    • Date and time of crash
    • Vehicle speed
    • Engine speed
    • Steering angle
    • Throttle position
    • Braking status
    • Force of impact
    • Seat belt status
    • Air bag deployment

    Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

About 96 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States have the boxes, and by next September, if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has its way, all new cars 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 are increasingly being used to identify safety problems in cars and as evidence in traffic accidents and criminal cases.

To federal regulators, law-enforcement authorities and insurance companies, the information is an indispensable tool to investigate crashes. But to consumer advocates, it's 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," says Khaliah Barnes of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer group. "Without protections, it can lead to all kinds of abuse."

Fourteen states, including Washington, have passed laws that say that, even though the data belong 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.

Current regulations 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 are then analyzed through computer software.

The lack of standardization among manufacturers has made it difficult to extract the data. Until recently, crash investigators needed an automaker's proprietary reader as well as the expertise to analyze the data. The safety administration's regulations will help enable universal access to the data by using a commercially available tool.

"For most of the 100-year history of the car, it used to be, 'He said, she said,'" says Thomas Kowalick, an expert in event data recorders. "That's no longer going to be the way."

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