Privacy Experts Shun Black Boxes

Some safety and privacy experts are reacting with apprehension, others with all out condemnation over a recent ruling by the National Transportation Safety Board (search) to require electronic data recorders or "black boxes" in all new cars manufactured in the United States.

"I take offense that this personal property of individuals is now being designed by the federal government," said Jim Harper, privacy attorney and editor of

Black boxes (search), or "EDRs" have been fitted into every General Motors car in its 2004 line and is in a number of Ford models — about 15 percent of all vehicles on the road today, according to road safety experts.

EDRs are certainly not new. Information gathered on black boxes — typically everything from speed, brake pressure, seat belt use and air bag deployment — has already been used in determining guilt in criminal and civil cases across the country.

Proponents, including the NTSB and road safety advocates, say the data collected on these black boxes is valuable for studying how accidents happen and how to make roads and cars safer. EDR data has been used for years to fine tune air bag efficiency.

"We think for understanding the dynamics of crashes, the information here can be very, very helpful," said Lon Anderson, director of AAA Mid-Atlantic (search). On the other hand, Anderson said, "We think it would be very wrong if the data in these boxes was deemed to be public information, open to anybody and the owner had no say over it."

The NTSB recommended in early August that black boxes be mandated, but critics say dealers are not now required to alert car owners that their car has the ability to collect the information. Currently only California has a law requiring car dealers to notify buyers when their cars are outfitted with an EDR.

Owners also have no legal protections to keep them from being forced to hand over that information to another party if a court order demanded it.

"I think (owners) have to be told of whatever data there is — and what is being retained longterm. What are the storage conditions? Will they keep it confidential or will they have to release information to anybody?" said professor John Soma, director of the Privacy Center (search) at Denver University.

"Without all of these concerns written into it, then obviously the recommendation is completely unacceptable," he said.

According to Joe Osterman, director of highway safety at the NTSB, the recommendation was inspired in part by a tragic auto accident involving a 86-year-old man who drove his car into a crowded Santa Monica farmers’ market last summer, killing 10 and injuring 63.

Osterman said a black box in the car might have not saved the people in the crash, but would have allowed investigators to find out how it happened and how cars could be better designed to reduce the likelihood of greater injury in the future.

"We have a long history of using data recorders in other modes of transportation and found them extremely useful," Osterman told, pointing to aircraft. "Unless we have all vehicles equipped, you will not have a true picture of what is happening on the highways, in a broader sense."

Phil Haseline, president of the Automobile Coalition for Traffic Safety (search), which represents car manufacturers, said automakers are still debating the value of EDRs, and the idea of requiring them. Haseline said he is a proponent of black boxes but has certain reservations about the NTSB’s recommendation.

He, like others, said he would like to first see standardization of the type of data collected in the black boxes, much like a recommendation made in June by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (search). Right now, dueling technologies record different things.

Then, Haseline said, he would prefer that laws address the issue of a car owner’s knowledge of the EDRs in their vehicles, and that car owners have ownership of the data once its recorded.

"I can understand [NTSB's desire] to have this information, but from a practical perspective, it is premature at this point to require it," he said.

While privacy experts say jokes like "'big brother' is riding shotgun" aren’t funny, the technology already is being used to monitor certain drivers.

Global positioning systems are being used by car rental companies to track where renters are going and how fast they are driving. GPS also allows rental car companies to shut off the engine of a car and lock a renter out of it. It’s the same technology used by OnStar, which promises to be a guardian angel for car owners who are locked out or report a vehicle stolen.

Parents of teenagers have also begun to use black boxes marketed by Road Safety International (search) in Thousand Oaks, Calif. This item, which can be placed under the hood, is able to track the driver’s use of a seatbelt, excessive speed, hard cornering, braking and even unsafe backing, and can store hours of information for review later.

Privacy experts warn that once cars are outfitted for the most limited data recording, the government will find a way to argue it’s for drivers’ "own good" to collect more. They point to a push in recent years to install GPS in all cars so that emergency officials can easily find incapacitated accident victims.

"When you are telling someone it is for their own good, then it should be their own choice, they should be able to say ‘no,’" said professor Yale Kamisar of the University of Michigan Law School. "None of these things work out the way they are supposed to. Why should we believe all of these assurances when they haven’t been honored in the past?"