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Black box data recorders present potential for invasion of privacy, incomplete picture of accidents



Science fiction is turning into reality with the installation of event data recorders, better known as “black boxes,” in cars.

These black boxes are very similar to the ones found on airplanes. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, these devices are going to be used to record safety-related data before and after a motor-vehicle crash.

According to NHTSA, about 96 percent of 2013 passenger cars and light-duty vehicles are already equipped with black boxes.

The ambiguity of the NHTSA’s proposed rule mandating the installation of these devices in all automobiles and light trucks by 2014 makes this a scary advancement in technology.

More concrete guidelines are needed to explain how these black boxes will function in order to make sure a driver’s privacy is not completely disregarded.

Even though, according to NHTSA, the event data recorders, or EDRs, do not collect any personal information, record conversation or run continuously, the Electronic Frontier Foundation stated that accelerator pedal position, brake pedal position, whether the seat belt is connected and other related details can be monitored by the black boxes.

The foundation is concerned that NHTSA does not really outline the amount or limit on the type of data that will be gathered.

Another problem is the frequency of data extraction and storage. If everyone’s data is compiled into one big database, there is no guarantee that this information will not be misused.

The data collected from the black box, along with other connected features in a vehicle, like your GPS or OnStar account, is recorded and can be sold by companies. In late 2011, General Motors attempted to change the customer agreement so it could sell the information obtained from the OnStar accounts of both current and former customers.

Furthermore, by 2017, more than 60 percent of new cars produced worldwide are expected to have “connected capabilities,” according to ABI Research, up from 11.4 percent from last year.

Some people see EDR-type devices as a great advancement that could allow for better safety recalls and crash assessments. But with an abundance of information comes the potential for corruption and its misuse.

Black boxes are increasingly being used by attorneys in car-related court cases, according to USA Today.

“It’s far more reliable than eyewitness accounts,” says Wolfgang Mueller, a Berkley, Mich., plaintiff lawyer and former Chrysler engineer. “It’s hard for the carmakers to dispute their own data,” in an interview with USA Today.

But while these boxes can monitor technical information, they can’t fully convey the situation the driver was in. Data from black boxes creates an incomplete picture that will be misused by attorneys more frequently as the number of black boxes in cars increases.

While these EDRs could allow us to better develop safety measures in cars, there comes a point where people need to get disconnected and say no to being monitored.

—Razanne Chatila is a journalism sophomore. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu, or on Twitter via @Razanne92


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