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Black Box Recorders: Groundbreaking Safety Devices Or The End Of Privacy?

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We're all familiar with event data recorders -- or as they're more commonly known, "black boxes". EDRs are standard equipment on airplanes, and any time there's a mishap, news programs are full of journalists making guesses about what the recorders will reveal.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that EDRs are coming to cars, too. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has backed legislation to make the devices mandatory on all new vehicles, beginning with the 2015 model year.

What you may not know is that the new legislation would only affect around 4% of vehicles sold in America. Why? Because the other 96% already have EDRs. If you drive a car made by a big-name automaker like Ford, General Motors, or Toyota, chances are good that there's a black box sitting in your dashboard.

In other words, the vast majority of vehicles sold in the U.S. today come with EDRs, and soon the gizmos will be found on all of them. Barring a huge shift in politics and/or technology, this situation isn't likely to change.

However, there are plenty of lingering questions about the mandatory installation of EDRs. Most of those questions revolve around privacy: (a) how should manufacturers notify new-car shoppers about the presence of the recording device, (b) how long should data be stored on the device, and (c) who owns that data?

AAA attempted to raise concerns about all three issues late last year, and the Associated Press has just picked up on the matter in the new video posted above. But so far, nothing has happened at the legislative level to address privacy concerns in a substantial way.

OUR TAKE

On the one hand, traditional notions of privacy seem to be changing. In an era when people are more than happy to share their locations on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks, privacy ain't what it used to be. As a result, EDRs might not be seen as overly intrusive.

Also, EDRs stand to boost auto safety by noting technological and mechanical problems in our vehicles. And in the long term, devices similar to EDRs may play a key role in vehicle-to-vehicle communications, which could eliminate thousands of collisions each year.

On the other hand, just because our definition of privacy is in flux doesn't mean that there's no such thing as privacy anymore. There are still plenty of lines in the sand that few folks want to cross. 

For example, even if federal legislation doesn't stipulate that warrants are required to tap EDR data, one good lawsuit would likely find in favor of an individual's right to privacy. Courts have also questioned the usefulness of black box data, expressing wariness about the idea of EDRs as dispassionate witnesses to accidents. In fact, one judge in Nevada agreed that black box data "constitute[s] unreliable hearsay". 

And of course, EDRs could provide one more way for identity thieves to steal vital personal info. (Thankfully, someone's already working on a fix for that.)

Does your car already contain an EDR? Are you worried about how the data on that device might be used? Or do you think such concerns are overblown? Sound off in the comments below.

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