NMA Black Boxes Fact Sheet ( PDF )
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By Steve Purdy, Michigan Activist

Somewhere under your hood or under the seat of your car there may be a little black box, called a vehicle data recorder, saving data. Not data that would likely be of interest to you but it might be of great interest to the manufacturer of your car, to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or some other government entity (including a court of law).

The problem is, you don’t even know it’s there and the data could be used against you.

A panel of experts assembled in Southfield, Michigan to discuss this emerging controversy. Moderated by Car And Driver Editor Csaba Csere, the panel consisted of an information technology attorney, an insurance company executive, a Michigan State Police accident scene investigator, and an auto industry safety alliance executive.

The device in question is a tad bigger than a pack of cigarettes and it’s not in all cars. It only records about five seconds of data when your air bag either goes off or thinks about going off. For now, most record just a few tidbits of information like change in speed, throttle position, braking application, and seat belt use.

So the question is, if your vehicle is recording data about your driving, who owns that data?

Will there be more data collected as automotive systems become more sophisticated? Can that data be used to prosecute or exonerate you in case of an accident? How will the use of that data be regulated?

The consensus among the panel members is that the recording devises are here to stay and, at least so far, the owner of the automobile owns the data. What if someone other than the owner is driving during a crash, for example a renter, lessee, or fleet driver? There are issues of self incrimination and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure as well as other privacy issues that will need to be addressed as the technology advances.

There are already plenty of vehicles equipped with GPS capabilities in addition to the black boxes and that may exacerbate the controversy.

It was also agreed that it is likely, in fact inevitable, that more and more data will be recorded. Current technology would easily accommodate tons more information. NHTSA could easily require the collection of data useful to them, and other government agencies could too, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Attorney General. Now there’s a scary thought!

The State Police investigator insisted that they do not, and will not, access the data without a search warrant and they will not use the data to replace accident scene recon-struction, only to support what they’ve found by other means. The data could be crucial evidence in a trial. If you’re thinking you might somehow be able to erase data or destroy the recorder, just remember that the presumption will then go against you. The sergeant also indicated that as they go through the data, any error found negates the entire data set.

And watch out for your insurance company. Most, but not all, policies essentially give your insurance company the right to the data by way of a clause that states you agree to “cooperate” or “assist” in settling a claim.

California has addressed the issue but without providing much protection for the motorist by allowing access only with the owner’s permission or a court order. Well, the owner’s permission can be presumed either by the insurance policy clause referenced above or it could easily become an implied consent as a condition of having a driver’s license. A court order wouldn’t be hard to get in any event.

Consider the potential of such technology.

What if your speed could be transmitted by Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity-AKA wireless internet) automatically to a waiting trooper? Or how about renewing your driver’s license, having the clerk plug into the data system of your car and then hitting you with charges for all the violations your car’s black box has been able to record for the past year? Certainly, those are exaggerations but just think what could be done with all the data your car could collect on you.

Because it is integrated with the airbag system, disabling or removing the device is probably not an option. Whether the recording and controlling functions can be separated is not clear.

What is clear is that we had better keep an eye on this issue.