Big Brother Becomes Back Seat Driver

It's the one place you're free to sing, swear and swerve. For some it's a mobile office, others a sanctuary from the rest of their lives. But this private place is now becoming more public thanks to the latest head-scratching regulation from the U.S. government. Come 2014, the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is mandating all new cars have black box data recorders that will track a vehicle's speed, location and even how many people are in the car. 

With about 33,000 Americans killed in traffic accidents in 2010 - about one death every 13 minutes - the government's justification for the move is to increase safety. But that same reasoning may also scare people, leading them to believe this automative technology could be circumvented and leveraged to work against them. 

"Dead bodies drive policy, and vehicular accidents happen to be one of the major causes of death worldwide," says Dan Kaminsky, chief scientist at security firm DKH. "What makes people nervous is that, increasingly, their personal technology serves multiple masters. Your cell phone, your social network and even now your automobile acts in your interest, until it, perhaps, doesn't. We can't live a modern life without these accouterments, but do we want evidence of every possible action stored and possibly used against us in a court of law?"

One high profile case of vehicle black box data includes Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray. His vehicle's black box revealed that Murray, who may have fallen asleep behind the wheel, was driving 100 miles per hour in November of 2011 when he crashed and totaling the state-owned car he was driving. He initially denied the box's data, then accepted it and was ticketed $555. 

Data Devices

The recorders would be activated by car behavior that suggests possible accidents. That includes vehicles quickly stopping, accelerating or weaving and swerving through traffic. When this happens, the black boxes record activity for about 30 seconds in order to determine a post-crash assessment. That data would then be available either via download remotely or by a connection with the car itself. The data does not prevent an accident for the person involved, but instead serves as a means of understanding a crash and hopefully preventing similar incidents in the future, much the way airplane black boxes work. 

Still, a slew of questions remain about the recorders themselves and the content on them, including data ownership. Also in question is whether drivers can disable the devices and just what is law enforcement's jurisdiction over obtaining that information. In addition, it is not known how much this is going to cost consumers in added market prices for cars and whether the implementation will have a tax angle for U.S. car owners. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has yet to respond to requests from ReadWrite to answer these questions, but it's probably safe to say that these updates will be factored into increased sticker prices for vehicles. 

In order to keep transparency, the ACLU is asking that the data on these black boxes be owned by drivers, and that the machines be open source. Perhaps most importantly, they are requesting drivers have the option of turning off the devices. The civil liberties union isn't the only group weighing in: The Electronics Privacy Information Center has many of the same privacy concerns, with the most notable being lack of consumer knowledge about the tech, driver access, security and driver ownership of their data, and third-party access to that data. The EPIC also posits this may set a precedent on future technology integration with non-vehicle operation related features. 

How We Got Here And What's Next 

Six years ago the government established requirements for data recorders for light vehicles. On September 1, 2014, installation of these recorders will become mandatory. But many cars on the road already have these electronic data recorders, or EDRs. In 2005, the NHTSA reported that 64% of all vehicles had some sort of EDR onboard vehicles, and by 2010, that figure was estimated to be about 85%. There were about 254 million registered passenger cars in the U.S. in 2007, according to a Department of Transportation study. That translates to about 660 vehicles per 1,000 people.

Although privacy issues abound, this seems to be another unavoidable necessity for drivers, part of a new era of transportation.

Security expert Kaminsky characterizes it as a personal liberty balancing act for both drivers and the government. He says that as people become more accustomed to the devices, the fear factor may be diffused. 

"A rather wide swath of the perception of freedom comes from the existence of a semi-private space in which one can be relaxed with friends," Kaminsky noted. "The more technology is watching, the less - it is feared, somewhat legitimately - that semi-private space can be enjoyed."

If you are worried about the precedent this move sets, or just want to offer the Feds a piece of your mind, the NHTSA is accepting comments online up until February 11, 2013. The comment site may just be a PR move on behalf of the communications department to display transparency and vet problems, but here's hoping that important comments will be heard by the powers that be.  

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.