Black Boxes in Cars: Invasion of Your Privacy?

By Tara Baukus

There's an event data recorder, or EDR, in many cars -- what is commonly called a "black box." It tracks your car's movements and the actions you take as a driver, and now there are federal guidelines that standardize the information being collected.

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There is much debate over this information and when and how it can be used.

EDRs have been in cars for a couple of decades and were placed there by automakers as a way for them to access information about the car's movements and driver behavior to help determine if a vehicle malfunctioned or the driver was in error in the event of a lawsuit.

Today, most passenger cars and light-duty pickups have event data recorders. They are not required equipment in cars, but they may be for the 2015 model year if pending legislation passes.

Even though EDRs are not mandatory, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put standards in place for the information the devices can collect as well as how the data are accessed for 2013 model year cars and beyond. The EDRs now record 15 different variables, including the car's speed, how far the accelerator pedal was depressed, whether the brakes were applied, the engine's revolutions per minute, how quickly the air bags were deployed and if the driver was wearing a seat belt. The devices have specific standards they must meet for impact, and they must be designed to capture data for up to two subsequent crashes after the initial impact. The requirements also include that the data be accessible through commercially available equipment.

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While EDR data are generally considered the property of the car's owners or lessee in much the same way information on a home computer is considered your property, EDR data can be received under a warrant; attempts to use the information already have been made in court cases to prove a driver's negligence.

There is much debate within the courts on the legality of using information from an event data recorder, and whether it can be considered reliable and accurate as legal evidence.

The larger concern for many people is privacy of that data. The same legislation that proposes mandatory EDRs in all cars for 2015 also calls for even more data about the driver's habits. Some civil rights groups and legislators have concerns about how the data are obtained and how they can be used.

While it remains to be seen whether event data recorders will become mandatory equipment in cars and what the parameters will be for collecting and sharing the data they contain, the fact is that they do exist in most cars on the road today.

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