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Mandatory ‘big brother’ black boxes leave drivers with privacy concerns

The United States Senate has already passed a bill that would require data-recording “black boxes” to be equipped on every vehicle for the 2015 model year, and the House is also expected to approve the bill. The primary function of the black boxes, which are known as Electronic Data Recorders (EDRs), would be to “capture and store data related to motor vehicle safety,” and access to the EDR’s information is only through an “interoperable data access port.” Interestingly enough, EDRs are already found in almost 80% of all vehicles, including models from GM, Ford, Kia, Hyundai, and many others.

Black boxes can record the date and time, along with engine speed, steering angle, throttle position, braking status, force of impact, seatbelt status and air bag deployment, and are meant to help automakers make vehicles safer. It is unclear who actually owns the data, though.

“The owner of the vehicle should be in control of the data,” Paul Stephens, director or policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearing House said to Wired. “And [law enforcement] would need a subpoena, just as you can’t go into someone’s house and grab evidence. But everything is subject to judicial procedure and it’s always possible to get a subpoena to get that information.”

The bill does allow first responders such as police, paramedics and firefighters to access the data without a court order, however, if it aids them in an emergency situation. According to Jim Harris, owner of Harris Technical Services, a firm that accesses and analyzes EDR data, the information can quickly change hands in certain situations. “If a car is in a crash and deemed a total loss by an insurance company, the insurer now owns the vehicle,” he said. “And the insurance company can access the data on the EDR can and possibly use it in legal proceedings against the former owner.”

Harris also warned that data from a car’s EDR can sometimes be wrong or misleading. “EDR data doesn’t stand alone,” he said. “We’ve found data records that did not match the physical evidence in a crash – not even close.” Other mitigating factors have to be taken into account along with EDR data, he said.