Will Big Brother Ride Shotgun With You?

God may be your co-pilot, but Big Brother is calling dibs on shotgun in your car. Actually, rather than occupying the front passenger seat, he may be hiding away in a less visible location in the vehicle. Gearhead blog The Truth A

bout Cars reports that the new Transportation Bill may mandate black boxes in all new cars which will record data about where and how you drive:

The new highway bill recently passed by the U.S. Senate, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act or MAP21, has come under some criticism, in part because of a provision that would give the IRS power to strip American citizens of their U.S. passports if they own the federal government enough money. Another provision of S.1813 also has civil liberties implications, particularly for motorists. If the Senate’s version of the legislation survives the reconciliation process with the House, the final bill would make the installation of event data recorders (EDRs) mandatory in all new cars sold in the United States starting in 2015.


(a) Mandatory Event Data Recorders-

(1) IN GENERAL- Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall revise part 563 of title 49, Code of Federal Regulations, to require, beginning with model year 2015, that new passenger motor vehicles sold in the United States be equipped with an event data recorder that meets the requirements under that part.

The cited part of CFR 49, establishes standards for EDRs if manufacturers voluntarily install them. S.1813 would make such installation, as the legislation says, mandatory, with civil penalties imposed on manufacturers for non-compliance. Theoretically the the car owner or lessee would still own the data, but the bill carves out exceptions that could give the government broad access to your personal travel data.

(2) PRIVACY- Data recorded or transmitted by such a data recorder may not be retrieved by a person other than the owner or lessee of the motor vehicle in which the recorder is installed unless–

(A) a court authorizes retrieval of the information in furtherance of a legal proceeding;

(B) the owner or lessee consents to the retrieval of the information for any purpose, including the purpose of diagnosing, servicing, or repairing the motor vehicle;

(C) the information is retrieved pursuant to an investigation or inspection authorized under section 1131(a) or 30166 of title 49, United States Code, and the personally identifiable information of the owner, lessee, or driver of the vehicle and the vehicle identification number is not disclosed in connection with the retrieved information; or

(D) the information is retrieved for the purpose of determining the need for, or facilitating, emergency medical response in response to a motor vehicle crash.

While most Americans would not have much objection to Parts A and B, court ordered or consensual searches, Parts C and D create issues over civil liberties. They also might give the federal government powers that constitutionally rest with the individual states. Traffic laws are enforced at the state and local levels in the United States. Sections 1131 and 30166 of CFR 49 are what gives the National Transportation Safety Board it’s authority to investigate transportation accidents. That authority is fairly broad and technically covers all motor vehicle accidents so the new legislation would appear allow the NTSB to have access to EDR data even in the event of a minor fender bender.

While giving local government agencies real-time access such data as airbag deployments and the locations of accidents in order to dispatch first responders is not exactly the stuff of Orwellian nightmares, we can’t help but feel apprehension at the prospects of federal bureaucrats having real-time access to our GPS data.

Although the text of legislation provides that such data would belong to a vehicle’s owner, there are enough loopholes in the bill as written to drive the proverbial truck through it. When government and industry have the power to access data about private citizens, they have not always shown that they can be relied upon to do so in a responsible manner. Considering the ubiquitous spyware that finds its way into our personal computers, cellphone tracking data and the explosive growth of cameras which observe us in traffic intersections, shopping malls and at ATM’s, the installation of additional data tracking hardware in our cars and trucks is not necessarily a case of “more is better.”

– JP

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