Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Spy Under the Hood: Friend or Foe?

Most people have heard of the "black-box" data recorders that commercial airliners carry in case of a crash. Designed to survive high impact and long immersion under water, these bulletproof devices carry a record of vital statistics about the plane's speed, altitude, and control settings up to the point of impact, and have proved invaluable in countless crash investigations. What you may not have heard is that your own car very likely carries a small-scale version of the same technology. And if you ever have a wreck, the information in your car's black box might be used against you—or in your favor.

The technical name for the device is an Event Data Recorder. It typically preserves information on vehicle velocity, throttle settings, and even steering-wheel positions for the last five seconds or so before an impact. It is an outgrowth of the sensor systems originally developed to operate air bags. As more and more of the typical automobile's operation has become digitized and mediated by computers, engineers found that it would be little added trouble to store certain data in a non-volatile format (technically called an EEPROM) that can be read out even after a wreck, with the proper equipment. Already the systems have proved useful to both prosecutors and defendants in civil and criminal cases involving car wrecks.

In Austin, Texas, evidence from Daniel Talamante's GMC pickup was used against him to prove that he was going 85 mph before he slammed into another car, killing two children. He was convicted of murder. On the other hand, the system worked in favor of a woman in Connecticut who was facing conviction for negligent homicide resulting from a collision she had one winter day after crossing a main-road center line. The data recorder showed that her vehicle's speed was well below the posted limit and suggested that she drove onto a patch of ice that caused the accident. As a result, the charges were reduced.

What is your reaction to the idea that your car could essential turn government witness against you? From one point of view, the situation is not much different than a policeman using a radar detector to clock your speed. In both cases, law enforcement uses technology to monitor aspects of your driving. But if the data recorder's evidence is used against you, there is the added little sting that you paid for it yourself.

In my very limited research into this issue, it doesn't appear that evidence from the recorders is being abused or manipulated. Rather, as with most technical evidence, both defendants and plaintiffs use it, depending on which side the data favors. And in some cases, no doubt, the data is equivocal, consistent with a variety of interpretations.

The case of the automotive event data recorder is only one example of a trend that will likely grow in the future: the prospect that more and more aspects of our lives, from what websites we view, to where we go, to what we say, will get digitized and recorded somewhere. This trend will no doubt lead to great changes, just as the advent of mechanical sound and motion-picture recordings led to a revolution (or series of revolutions) in the entertainment industry, journalism, politics, and so on.

The extreme civil libertarians among us will object to any and every encroachment on what they see as the right to privacy, and such concerns should not be ignored. Some states such as California require that purchasers of new cars be notified that the black box is inside your new car. This has probably had little effect but to add another sheet to be signed to the growing pile of paper that has to change hands every time you buy a car, but at least it is an effort to let people know.

There is something to be said to the principled objection that a person should not be compelled to pay for a gizmo that can potentially record evidence that is not in their own interest. Some people even try to disable the device, but this is not a good idea, because its function is tied in with the airbag system. In damaging the data recorder, you might disable your airbags—or even set them off, which would be quite entertaining, to say the least. I'm in favor of people at least knowing that there is such a device in most new cars, but going beyond that to a right to disable them might be a little much. And who knows?—maybe some folks drive a little more carefully knowing that every turn of the wheel could be used against them in a court of law.

On the whole, this technology looks pretty benign. In the New Testament, we read that ". . . rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil." What's said about rulers can be applied to this kind of technology as well. If you're a good driver, or even the innocent victim of adverse circumstances, your black box's evidence can only help, it seems. And if you're a drunk driver or otherwise misbehaving, it can provide one more witness against you, which most people would agree is a good thing.

Sources: A column by Ben Wear in the Sept. 10, 2007 Austin American-Statesman discussed event data recorders. The story of the woman who hit the patch of ice appears at http://www.clickondetroit.com/automotive/3786478/detail.html. A good technical description of the kinds of data recorded, written by an employe of a company that makes software to download the data, is at http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/edr-site/uploads/Auto_Black_Box_Data_Recovery_Systems_by_TARO.pdf. And the New Testament quotation is from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, chapter 13, verse 4.

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