– Hate To Break It To You, But Your Car Likely Has A Black Box ‘Spying’ On You Already (Forbes, April 19, 2012):
The big news in automotive privacy this week is that Congress is on the verge of passing a transportation bill that will make “big brother” black boxes mandatory in all new cars. InfoWars is encouraging drivers to freak out about the horrific invasion of privacy represented by the government’s insisting that all Americans have event data recorders that reveal exactly what happened before and after a crash. But the truth of the matter is that most Americans already have black boxes in their cars. They’ve been around since 1996, are found in at least 60 million vehicles, and are a feature in 85% of new cars every year.
“Virtually every car that has an air bag has some kind of recording ability,” says James Casassa, of Wolf Forensics which specializes in downloading crash information from vehicles made by GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda. The recorders capture information about how fast you were going and whether you slammed on the brakes in the seconds before and after a crash. They capture just a snapshot, not a continual record of your driving activity — which would be far more concerning for privacy. (But don’t worry! You can get a far more invasive event recorder from your insurance company if you’re looking to lower your car insurance rates.)
Many drivers don’t realize they already have a black box, though the law does require that manufacturers provide notice in a car’s manual (which I’m sure most car owners read ever so closely). Black boxes have been a source of info in countless criminal cases to show how fast a driver was going when he or she slammed into pedestrians or another car. Though, in one recent case, a court threw out the black box evidence used against a California man to convict him of vehicular manslaughter because the police pulled the data from the black box of his SUV without getting a warrant first.
So what’s the new law going to change?
For one, it will make the recorders mandatory in all vehicles starting in 2015, meaning that manufacturers who have not been including them (such as Mercedes-Benz and Audi) will have to start. And as IEEE reports, recent rules from the NHTSA have standardized what those event recorders capture: “a car’s speed, how far the accelerator was pressed, the engine revolutions per minute, whether the driver hit the brakes, whether the driver was wearing a safety belt, and how long it took for the airbags to deploy.” So moving forward, these event recorders will be creating far more comprehensive recordings.
The bill is actually good for privacy in a few ways. In the past, there were questions about whether the data belonged to the manufacturer or the owner. This would establish that the data in the recorder belongs to the owner (or lessee) of a vehicle, meaning that interested parties such as insurance companies, dealerships, or advertisers won’t be able to collect info from your black box without your permission. The only exceptions would be when a court grants access to law enforcement, when an emergency medical team needs the info, or in the event of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation (I’m sure the gov had the Toyota accelerator investigation in mind here). Two wins for privacy here: insurance companies aren’t granted access to the valuable boxes and the bill says police have to get a court order to peek at the data under your hood.
IEEE mentions that some BMWs now have wireless event recorders that can beam their info back to a dealership to assist with scheduling maintenance appointments. But for most cars, you can only get into the black box manually. And it’s not always easy to get the data since the black boxes aren’t standardized and instead vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. A company called Bosch has a monopoly on providing the tools used to jack this data from various vehicles. Congress wants manufacturers to ensure “that data stored on such event data recorders be accessible, regardless of vehicle manufacturer or model, with commercially available equipment in a specified data format.” Open source folks, who might want to tap the data in their own cars, will likely be pleased with this provision.
While privacy fanatics may not like the idea of cars spying on their activity and being able to “testify” against them in the event of an accident, it’s hard to argue against the usefulness of a digital record to establish fault and deconstruct a crash that may have left other witnesses dead. And because black boxes have already made their way into most cars, the privacy concerns seem like roadkill at this point.