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Battle Over Data Privacy Moves to the Dashboard

Battle Over Data Privacy Moves to the Dashboard
January 23, 2014 9:28AM

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Event data recorders in vehicles create a constant loop of information, and now concerns are brewing about how that data could be put to other uses, with now clearly defined laws. Some lawmakers want to limit the ways in which that data can be used, but previous attempts to pass such privacy protections have failed to gain traction.

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A device roughly the size of two decks of cards could play a large role in the growing push on Capitol Hill to better protect the privacy of personal data.

These event data recorders -- commonly referred to as black boxes -- are situated beneath the front seat or console in vehicles, where they can track speed, steering angle, braking, air bag deployment, seat belt use and other information. The data they record is valuable to auto manufacturers and insurers trying to assess the reliability of different models and the circumstances of accidents.

As vehicle systems become more complex, concerns are growing that the information could be put to other uses, too, and that there is no comprehensive law governing who owns such information and what purposes it can serve.

"It's a constant loop of information," said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "I think people would be pretty shocked."

Klobuchar and others want to limit the ways in which that data can be used. Last week, Klobuchar and U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., introduced the Driver Privacy Act, which would ensure that the owner of a vehicle also owns the data recorded by that vehicle. The bill would require a warrant to release that data without the owner's consent. North Dakota and 13 other states already have such a law. Minnesota does not. Drivers who pass through a state without such privacy laws are not covered while they are traveling in that state.

Black boxes in vehicles are not new. Some manufacturers have been installing data recorders since the mid-1990s, but their use has become increasingly widespread. More than 90 percent of new vehicles sold in the United States now carry black box devices, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to make them mandatory beginning in September.

Federal regulators, law enforcement agencies and insurance companies say the data is an indispensable tool for crash investigations and, ultimately, the development of safer cars.

But privacy advocates say the data can be used in criminal probes, to find fault in crashes or even to build profiles that savvy marketers could exploit.

Previous attempts to pass such privacy protections have failed to gain traction, but recent revelations on U.S. government spying have made Congress and the public more sensitive to privacy issues.

Fresh controversy over black boxes in cars broke out earlier this month, when a top Ford Motor Co. official at the International Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas bragged that the automaker could use global position system technology to determine when drivers break the law.

"We know everyone who breaks the law; we know when you're doing it," said Jim Farley, Ford's executive vice president of global marketing. "We have GPS in your car, so we know what you're doing."

Farley later retracted those comments, and Ford officials did not respond to a Star Tribune request for clarification of the company's position.

Klobuchar said Farley's remarks were "very scary for people, and they (Ford) tried to dial it back, but it's true."

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association that represents a dozen automakers -- including Ford -- defends the use of event data recorders as a tool to monitor passenger safety.

Alliance spokesman Wade Newton said automakers don't access the data without consumer permission and that "any government requirements to install EDRs on all vehicles must include steps to protect consumer privacy."

© 2014 Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) syndicated under contract with NewsEdge. All rights reserved.

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