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Mandatory Car 'Black Boxes' Proposed: Privacy Questions

NHTSA proposes that beginning in 2014, most cars would have to be fitted with data recorders. Consumer rights advocates say the measure includes few privacy protections.

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Is the country ready for black box data recorders inside consumers' automobiles?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) last week issued a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register, proposing that as of Sept. 1, 2014, all cars should be fitted with event data recorders (EDRs).

"The agency is issuing this proposal because we believe that, without a regulation, EDRs will remain absent from the estimated 8% of the current light vehicle fleet that lacks an EDR," according to the Federal Register listing. "We believe that requiring all light vehicles required to have frontal air bags to be equipped with EDRs would help improve vehicle safety for consumers, while imposing relatively limited costs on the automobile industry."

Consumers have until Feb. 11, 2013, to comment on the proposal. Already, however, the consumer rights group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) warned that EDRs "record detailed information about drivers, which can be made available to insurance companies, the police, and others," and recommended that "commentators urge the agency to 'strengthen privacy safeguards'" for data captured by any such devices.

[ Ready for driverless cars? Read Google Autonomous Cars Get Green Light In California. ]

But the NHTSA, in its proposal, suggested that any related data privacy safeguards would have to come via laws enacted by Congress -- none currently exist -- or state legislatures. "While these issues are of continued importance in the public discussion on the use of EDR technology, as an agency, we do not have the statutory authority to address many of these privacy issues because they are generally matters of State and Federal law that we do not administer," said the NHTSA proposal.

To date, about a dozen states have passed laws governing how EDR data can be used. Most state laws require automotive manufacturers to disclose to new buyers when a vehicle contains an EDR, and also limit how collected data may be used or shared. Colorado law, for example, "prohibits the release of event data unless the data is released to a motor vehicle safety and medical research entity or data processor in order to advance motor vehicle safety, security, or traffic management," unless the release of that information is ordered by a court, or else the vehicle's owner simply consents to it being used.

This isn't the NHTSA's first foray into EDR standards. Notably, the agency created an EDR regulation in 2006, and it went into effect on Sept. 1, 2012. But although that regulation specifies how recorders should capture and store information -- as well as "crash survivability" requirements -- it doesn't mandate the installation of EDRs.

Why bother capturing vehicle data? According to the NHTSA, having access to EDR data could improve vehicle safety both now and in the future, not least by allowing the agency to examine the effectiveness of the latest safety features. "It is important to have EDR data relating to the crash experiences of vehicles with these advanced safety systems so that the agency can, at the earliest possible time, gather enough information about emerging advanced technologies to conduct reliable analyses and make policy judgments," said the proposal.

"Additionally, the agency's experience in handling unintended acceleration and pedal entrapment allegations has demonstrated that EDR data from a particular vehicle model can have significant value to both the agency and the vehicle's manufacturer to identify and address safety concerns associated with possible defects in the design or performance of the vehicle," it said.

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PJS880
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PJS880,
User Rank: Ninja
12/24/2012 | 1:56:29 AM
re: Mandatory Car 'Black Boxes' Proposed: Privacy Questions
My suggestion gives consumers the choice to pick weather or not they choose to have a vehicle containing EDR's. I think that the information that individuals give our over normal internet usage, that in you vehicle seems a bit excessive and a bit on the border of invading your privacy. There are far better ways to collect data for vehicle safety purposes and this is not one of them.

Paul Sprague
InformationWeek Contributor
Mathew
50%
50%
Mathew,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/19/2012 | 2:52:51 PM
re: Mandatory Car 'Black Boxes' Proposed: Privacy Questions
Some readers have asked how they can submit comments to the NHTSA about its proposal. The best approach is to read the notice of approved rulemaking, which spells out how to submit comments either online, or via mail, fax, or hand delivery.

If going the online route, visit regulations.gov and refer to docket number NHTSAG2012G0177. That said, it's worth reading the NHTSA's notice of proposed rulemaking first, as it provides a lot of very interesting detail about how/why the vehicle data would be collected, protected, and used.

--Mathew Schwartz
InformationWeek
Michael Endler
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50%
Michael Endler,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/18/2012 | 6:49:45 PM
re: Mandatory Car 'Black Boxes' Proposed: Privacy Questions
I like the idea of aggregating the data anonymously as well. That suggestion, like the "meaningful use" framework, seems like a common-sense way for handling EDRs-- but given the state of our legislative process with respect to privacy and technology laws, I won't be surprised if the deployment of these devices gets murkier before it gets clearer.

-- Michael Endler, InformationWeek Associate Editor
Mathew
50%
50%
Mathew,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/18/2012 | 5:30:42 PM
re: Mandatory Car 'Black Boxes' Proposed: Privacy Questions
Great observation, Nathan, thank you. Such a regulation would go a long way toward balancing research and privacy sides of this equation.
I wonder if there isn't some way that the data could also just be collected and shared with researchers anonymously? Akin to a computer or mobile app asking you if you'll share the data you're using anonymously, for research purposes. Maybe the data could be aggregated by dealers? It sounds like studying the information could lead to measurable safety improvements.
Mathew Schwartz
InformationWeek
NG11209
50%
50%
NG11209,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/18/2012 | 3:03:52 PM
re: Mandatory Car 'Black Boxes' Proposed: Privacy Questions
An executive at an auto insurance claims software company told me earlier this year that there is a 66% probability that one of the cars in a given accident has an event data recorder installed already. The company has the ability to extract that data and turn it over to insurers and authorities for investigation, but there are still many legal challenges. Hopefully as these devices become mandatory the consumer will be remembered in developing a "meaningful use" framework G as with electronic health records.

Nathan Golia
Insurance & Technology
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