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'Black Boxes' Track Your Car's Every Move

Event Data Recorders are in a growing number of vehicles and record information like whether a driver was wearing a seat belt during a crash. But privacy-rights experts want to put the brakes on releasing...
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What happens in the seconds right before or after a crash are often important factors in our safety. These actions could also provide investigators with information to help figure out who is to blame for the collision.

A device that is rarely seen holds this information, and how it is used has privacy experts concerned, especially since all cars will soon be required to record the same information.

The device is called an event data recorder, or EDR. It works similarly to the black box in an airplane, providing police with what can be crucial information after an accident.

These recorders can be placed under the seat, the console, the dash or in the engine compartment.

The information they hold can validate an accident investigation, Windsor Police Detective Russ Wininger said.

“We can tell whether or not the brake was activated on the vehicle. A lot of them will give us (information on) if the throttle was on, if they were on the gas or let off the gas, and whether or not the seat belt was plugged in” Wininger said.

Legislation passed this year will eventually require that every device record the same pieces of information, including speed, whether the brakes were used and if the driver was wearing a seat belt.

Privacy rights advocate Beth Givens said recording this information for safety studies, and crash investigations is just fine. However, insurance companies have already shown interest in using these devices to monitor customers' driving habits, she said.

Think about how some employers are allowed to check an employee’s credit report. That’s an example of how, Givens fears, the line of what is private could get blurred.

"My main concern really, is that it grows into something other than a crash data recorder,” Givens said.

And what about police?

What if law enforcement, when they stop you for a broken taillight, can plug in a jack and get information about your driving? Givens wondered.

But Detective Wininger said that is not going to happen.

There are legal avenues police must take to get a car's information.

“We would either seek a search warrant in order to get that information, or we’d get the consent of the owner. We’d take that information and download it and use that to validate anything we found in the investigation, such as the speed,” he said.

But Givens wonders whether our real-world protection means giving up a little of our own personal privacy.

"Anytime data is collected for one purpose, there's always a temptation for that data to be used for other purposes," she said.