NPR takes a look at “black boxes” in automobiles and how they could affect individual privacy:
If you’re a vehicle owner and happen to have a car accident in the near future (we hope you don’t), it’s likely the crash details will be recorded. Automotive “black boxes” are now built into more than 90 percent of new cars, and the government is considering making them mandatory.
Dave Wells, a detective at the King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington state, specializes in accident reconstruction. That means he’s often crouched under steering wheels, looking for the connector that mechanics use to get diagnostic codes. But Wells is using a different kind of tool, and it pulls out a very different kind of information. […]
This is crash data — moment-by-moment statistics saved from the car’s most recent collision. There’s speed, acceleration, braking — even information from inside the car. […]
Put it all together, and you get a detailed picture of the seconds right before and after a crash. The information comes from something called an “event data recorder“; the EDR has become key to insurance investigations, lawsuits and even criminal cases. But that wasn’t its original purpose.
“It was never designed for investigative purposes,” Wells says. “It was designed for … motor vehicle safety and keeping people less injured and alive.” […]
“I don’t think you’ll find very many Americans who know these devices are in their cars,” says Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass. For eight years now, he has been trying to pass legislation giving drivers the right to opt out. […]
Some states restrict what insurance companies can do with EDR information and require police to get a warrant before plugging in. But in much of the country, it’s still a gray area. […]
NHTSA won’t discuss its plans — because it’s in the process of writing the proposed new rule making the recorders mandatory — but in the past, some NHSTA officials have suggested the privacy of crash data as an issue that should be taken up by Congress.