Are Vehicle "Black Boxes" a Black Hole for Privacy?

June 3, 1999 12:00 am

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DETROIT–An in-car surveillance system presently running inside many General Motors vehicles is a significant erosion of personal privacy, critics and consumer advocates said Thursday, Wired News reports.

GM said its Sensing and Diagnostic Module (SDM) — currently installed in hundreds of thousands of cars — is only used for aggregate crash research, and poses no threat to consumer privacy.

Still, watchdogs are concerned that the latest SDM collects a little too much data for comfort. The unit records and processes the last five seconds of vehicular data before a collision. The box determines the force of a collision, the speed at which the car was traveling, whether the brakes were applied, and how the airbag fared. The unit also tracks engine speed, the angle of the steering wheel, whether or not the seatbelt was worn, and the position of the accelerator pedal.

Presently, it is unclear exactly who will have access to the data collected and what the information will be used for.

“The biggest problem is that it appears that these devices were installed without the consumer’s consent,” Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told Wired. “Clearly, the information will quickly get out of the control of the auto owner,” he added “This may be as troublesome for what it portends for the future as what it can do now.”

Since 1974, GM cars equipped with airbags have collected crash data. The SDM is simply a superior version of earlier diagnostic models, said Bob Lange, a GM engineering director.

“When we collect [information] and use it for research data, no one will be able to identify a person or vehicle as being the source of an event,” Lange said. “We will honor the privacy concerns that people might have.”

With the help of a Santa Barbara firm, Vetronix, GM will develop software and a cable that will unlock the secrets of the box. For a few hundred dollars, consumers will be able to pull the SDM data into a laptop computer. The ACLU’s Steinhardt said that the data will inevitably end up in the hands of police. Further, it could end up being subpoenaed in a lawsuit. Crash-analysis experts also questioned the box’s reliability.

Regulatory questions linger as well. “Can or should owners be given the option of having the black box installed in their motor vehicles?” asked Lawrence Friedman, chairman of the motor vehicle liability division of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. “Are we going to have a state or national law on the books that’s going to require the manufacturer to install it, like in aircraft?”

University of California law school professor Eugene Volokh said that data from the system would probably be admissible in court. “A reliable program that gives reliable conversion of the data — that’s like bringing in the eyewitness,” he said.

That’s exactly what makes the unit so menacing, Steinhardt said. “Its entirely likely that …legislation will begin to require the installation of various tracking devices on the grounds that cars are a dangerous instrumentality,” he said.

Sensing this apprehension, insurance companies aren’t exactly gushing over the boxes. “People may feel they have the right to privacy in their own vehicle,” said Donald Griffin, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Insurers, which represents over 600 insurance carriers. “[The SDM] could reduce fraud — but it could also cause more lawsuits against insurance companies for using the information.”

GM’s Lange said he is not concerned that the box might turn consumers off.

But Steinhardt remains skeptical. “The loss of personal civil liberties always begins with the best intentions of our government.”

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