Privacy In Your Car

Nowhere is the idea of personal freedom more ingrained than in the automobile. In the U.S., the entire car industry was built around the notion of bringing true mobility to the masses. And along with this was the notion that people’s personal freedoms were enhanced with this mobility. One of the main reasons people go through drivers ed and get their driver’s license is the increased freedom to work across town, explore our country, and have lifelong mobility in where to live.

Closely coupled with the freedom that comes with driving a car is the personal privacy of believing that the car is theoretically a “safe haven” much like a home. It is the drivers’ personal space which should be free from the spying eyes of government and everyone else who feels they have a need to “spy”. Enter the Senate bill known as Map-21, which has in its title “To reauthorize Federal-aid highway and highway safety construction programs“. Sounds pretty innocuous and with that title it sounds like there is nothing but goodness that could come out of this bill.

But hold on, buried in this bill is a very disturbing section titled “Vehicle Event Data Recorders“. It is one of those details that gets slipped into omnibnus bills that are seldom read but have wide ranging consequences. In this case, large potential consequences for our personal privacy related to cars. This section imposes a mandate starting in 2015 that every passenger vehicle sold in the US must have a “black box” event data recording system:


(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.

    (2) PENALTY- The violation of any provision under part 563 of title 49, Code of Federal Regulations–

    • (A) shall be deemed to be a violation of section 30112 of title 49, United States Code;

      (B) shall be subject to civil penalties under section 30165(a) of that title; and

      (C) shall not subject a manufacturer (as defined in section 30102(a)(5) of that title) to the requirements under section 30120 of that title.

    The net effect of this bill is create a set of requirements similar to those for airplanes, which are used to reconstruct events following a crash. Clearly there are many car crashes in the U.S., but they occur at ground level and not at 30,000 feet in the air, which drove the need for black box recorders in airplanes. In car crashes, unlike airplane crashes, most of the information pertaining to the crash survives, paving the way for relatively easy reconstruction. In other words, back-box data recorders add marginal information, at best, to our safey in a car and open up a path for potentially drastic misuse of tracking data.

    The guess is that the main reason for mandating black-box recorders has nothing to do with safety, but instead paves the way for a federal mileage tax. By mandating black box recorders on all cars, it would be a small step for the federal government to require a reading on every vehicle at periodic intervals and levy a mileage tax. This article is not about the pros and cons of a mileage tax, but just pointing out that there are many unforseen outcomes when personal privacy is assaulted.

    The bottom line is that while this bill is wrappd under the “safety” umbrella it definitely has the capacity to undermine our personal privacy related to driving an automobile. And anytime our personal privacy is in question, there should be a high level of public scrutiny and not just simply sweep the bill “under the carpet”.

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