Busted! Your car's black box is spying, may be used against you in court

When you are car shopping, how many times has a salesman pitched the 15 to 30 specific data elements constantly being collected by the car's black box as you drive? Probably never, but there's electronic data everywhere and that includes your car collecting digital evidence which might turn into the star witness to testify against you. You may not think about or be aware of your vehicle's event data recorder (EDR), yet it is constantly recording evidence like a plane's "black box" and is being used after a crash to explain why it happened.  


Way back in 2006, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated that all new vehicles be equipped with EDR "black boxes" by the 2013 model year [PDF]. 85% of U.S. vehicles now have EDR devices that "must capture and preserve at least 15 types of crash data, including pre-crash speed, engine throttle, changes in forward velocity and airbag deployment times." Some capture 30 types of data.

A politician was caught speeding, not by the cops but by his totaled car's black box. The police thought the wreck was a result of icy roads, but Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray wanted to silence political opponents and had hoped the e-evidence collected from his 2007 Ford Crown Victoria EDR would be his unshakable alibi. It was unshakable all right, but it proved Murray wasn't wearing a seatbelt, was "going 75 mph on an interstate marked for 65 mph," and "in the final few seconds before the crash, Murray pressed the accelerator, and the car's speed rose to 99 mph; it was traveling 106 mph by the time it hit the rock ledge." Busted!

What cars are equipped to narc on you? According to Crash Forensics, "As of 2011, GM vehicles as old as 1994 have accessible data, Ford vehicles as old as 2001 have accessible data, Chrysler vehicles as old as 2005 have accessible data, Toyota and Lexis vehicles as old as 2006 have accessible data, as well as some Isuzu, Fiat, Mitsubishi, Scion, Sterling, and Suzuki vehicles." You can also check this list [PDF] or this list [PDF] for vehicles with accessible EDRs.

"Now that your car records what you do behind the wheel, can you swear it to secrecy?" asked IEEE Spectrum. EPIC's executive director Marc Rotenberg said, "Your car is spying on you, collecting data about your habits that could be used by insurers [to set price quotes and policy parameters] as well as in a civil case or in a criminal matter." Conversely, attorney Charles Gillingham said, "I don't see how there can be an expectation of [EDR] privacy in a criminal case. When you're driving on public land, you give up expectation of privacy." 

Does that data about your driving belong to you or to insurance companies? It really depends where you have an accident since some courts have ruled the info belongs to the insurance companies and others have ruled the data belongs to drivers. As IEEE pointed out, "In the 37 states without EDR laws, there are no ground rules preventing insurance companies from obtaining the data-sometimes without the vehicle owner ever knowing that the data existed." John Tomaszewski, general counsel at TRUSTe, said "People should not relinquish their Fourth Amendment rights merely because of the location of their information." What about your right to plead the Fifth Amendment and not witness against yourself?

The Mariah Act legislation talks about vehicle black boxes and specifies "child restraint systems" and other data to be stored for retrieval and analysis access. Yet it also states that any event data recorded, "regardless of when the passenger motor vehicle in which it is installed was manufactured, is the property of the owner or lessee of the passenger motor vehicle in which the data recorder is installed." The privacy portion gets murky as law enforcement can get hold of EDR info if a court authorizes it or if there is an investigation. Now that GPS requires a warrant, some privacy advocates suggest law enforcement may be secretly using EDR device data to spy on people. It wouldn't be the first time a car was used to invade privacy such as when the Nissan Leaf secretly leaks your location and speed to websites.

We can hack high tech cars, even cop cars, and do all kinds of things with the plethora of technology embedded in vehicles. However some privacy experts ask if the black box data can be trusted as always correct since software glitches can happen to everything from pacemakers to automobiles. Jaguar has experienced software glitches that caused "cruise control to stay on." Maybe it depends how much you trust the software in the car? BMW wants to "do the thinking for you" and can relay your vehicle's information to a BMW dealership and automatically schedule appointments for maintenance like oil or brake pads.

The MyFord Touch software update led to highlighting other ways your car may spy on you. Venkatesh Prasad, Ford's general manager and director of innovation, told the Wall Street Journal, "Data on usage of voice-recognition software, for instance, led to new design and materials choices intended to lessen noise levels inside the cabin that were interfering with the software's ability to parse commands from ambient noise. Such feedback was also used to adjust the placement of microphones capturing customers' voice commands." Prasad maintains that "Ford respects the privacy of its customers and only uses data in the aggregate," but he also said "we have a great stethoscope now placed right in the cabin."

Do you trust your car's black box not to be used against you? Some people probably couldn't care less and install video cameras to record them. A DriveCam executive defended surveillance tech in cars when asked if spying on teenager drivers was an invasion of privacy or a parent's right. Nowadays insurance companies pimp in-vehicle video cameras to record driver behavior. Jalopnik said people will choose to be spied upon by electronic nanny cams and thereby trade their privacy for cheaper car insurance rates. If you have no issue with it, you never know, you might become the next viral video hit such as this dad and the kids singing Bohemian Rhapsody in the car on the way to school.


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon