The Automotive Black Box Data Dilemma

Built into the framework of U.S. citizens’ civil liberties is the right to privacy. Though not specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, privacy is cherished as a catchall concept that limits government intrusion into people’s lives and establishes boundaries meant to protect one citizen from another. But the framers of the Constitution could not have foreseen the electronic systems that now threaten to modify the definition of privacy or abolish it entirely.

Automobile safety systems, which are networked throughout the body of your car, generate a blizzard of data (likely without your knowledge) and store it in a nondescript box the size of a deck of cards. The gadget, called an event data recorder (EDR), is a less-refined version of the so-called black box carried by aircraft. Initially, EDRs were supposed to help researchers and automakers make refinements to the systems intended to keep cars from crashing and people from dying. But it wasn’t long before these devices were eyed as tools to help authorities figure out what a driver was doing in the moments before a crash—be it eating, shaving, or gargling with vodka. (Before EDRs, drawing such conclusions required autopsies and a series of educated guesses based on things like skid marks.)