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Black Boxes on Motorcycles: A Privacy Issue

Posted on Mar 19, 2014

Many people have heard about the so-called "black boxes" on newer vehicles and the proposed legislation to mandate their installation on all new vehicles including motorcycles. The fact of the matter is if you have a newer car or motorcycle, you probably have an Event Data Recorder (EDR) already on board. About 85% of new vehicles have them. Since 2013, EDRs were required to record at least 15 discrete variables before a crash. These included speed, accelerator position, engine rpm, brake use, seat-belt use and how long it took for the air bag to deploy. One of the concerns many people have is the capability to gather additional data which violates a person's privacy.

Engineers use the crash data to determine mechanical failures or system malfunctions in order to make cars safer. Insurance companies and attorneys might use the information to help determine causal or contributing factors in crash litigation. The question consumers and advocacy groups have are who owns this information and shouldn't it be protected and private?

Although NHTSA promulgated rules that the use of an EDR in a vehicle must be disclosed to the consumer, there is only a mention of the fact in the vehicle user manuals tucked away in glove compartments. Most consumers are totally unaware of the presence of the device.

There is a federal bill pending, "Black Box Privacy Protection Act"  HR2414, that provides some relief and protection to vehicle owners concerning the EDR issue. The bill calls for a clear statement in the owner's manual that an EDR device is on the vehicle. It also calls for a clear statement that the data collected is the property of the vehicle owner and will remain private. Read the bill to see what else is included in the language.

Of course, there is some opposition to this legislation because the collection of crash data is important for study and the possible prevention of similar crashes. The call for a lock out device in the bill would subvert those efforts to detect mechanical or human contributions to a crash.

Some organizations have submitted comments to NHTSA expressing concerns over the use of EDR's and urging the agency to adopt recommendations to prohibit the collection of audio, video and location data by EDR. Also, place a maximum duration on the EDR data recording and require the inclusion of a connector lockout apparatus that would give the vehicle owner control over physical access to the EDR. In fact, there are devices on the market that allow the owner to lock out the EDR, but some experts say those are easily bypassed.

Another concern is the telecommunication technology that can monitor various aspects of vehicle performance and broadcast that data to third parties, including vehicle locations. That could be another way to bypass a lockout device, so why install one in the first place?  Well, in a recent court case, U.S. v. Jones, The Supreme Court ruled that police do not have the authority to put GPS tracking devices on vehicles unless they have a warrant. To do so without a warrant was a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure. By placing the GPS unit on the car, police committed a trespass of the owners property by the act of a physical installation of the tracking device. So, by placing a lock out device on your vehicle, in essence you are saying "no" to a search of your property and that could be important as it is similar to a "do not enter" sign on your property.

Even with that said, there may be ways for electronic eavesdroping through OnStar tracking, embedded GPS in some car's data links, navigation systems on vehicles or even accessing dealership computer systems.

The motorcycle rights community will be watching HR2414 very closely. Meanwhile, check your vehicle user manual to see if you have a EDR installed in your vehicle.

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