'Black Boxes' in Cars Raise Legal Concerns

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on July 22, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you're driving a relatively new car, chances are it's equipped with a "black box" for car crashes, otherwise known as an event data recorder which tracks certain actions.

About 96 percent of new cars sold in the United States have the boxes, according to The New York Times. And if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gets its way, black boxes will come standard in all new cars by September 2014.

But there are growing privacy concerns over the expanding use of "black boxes."

Use in Car Crashes

The cars' "black box" recorders capture only the few seconds surrounding a crash or air bag deployment. A separate device extracts the data, which is then analyzed through computer software, reports The New York Times.

Car companies have used the boxes for years as a way to assess the performance of their vehicles.

But to federal regulators, law enforcement authorities and insurance companies, the data has turned into an essential tool to investigate crashes.

The box is used to evaluate what happened during a crash and determine what steps can be taken to prevent such incidents in the future.

Privacy Concerns

Once gathered, privacy advocates say, the data can be used against car owners, to find fault in accidents or in criminal investigations.

In addition, the data collected may grow to include a wider time frame and other elements like GPS and location-based services.

Currently, there aren't clear standards on what is and isn't a permissible use of the data.

Fourteen states, including New York, have passed laws that say that, even though the data belongs to the vehicle's owner, law enforcement officials and those involved in civil litigation can gain access to the black boxes with a court order.

Other states, like Massachusetts, have not passed laws governing access to the data and don't require a court order, the Times reports.

Reliability Concerns

Beyond the privacy concerns, though, critics have questioned the reliability of "black box" car crash data.

"It's data that has not been shown to be absolutely reliable," said an attorney who got the box excluded as evidence in a traffic case. "It's not black and white."

And yet, their "Brave New World" use seems inevitable.

"For most of the 100-year history of the car, it used to be 'he said, she said,'" one data recorder expert told the Times. "That's no longer going to be the way."

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