Push to Require Every Car to Have a 'Black Box' Raises Privacy Concerns

Updated: 12/03/2013 10:43 PM KSTP.com By: Beth McDonough

When you hear the words "black box," an airplane usually comes to mind. 

It turns out that just about every car on the road has one too. They're called EDR's: event data recorders.

The Minnesota State Patrol obtained a warrant to retrieve the "black box" from the 1998 Grand Am that plunged into the icy holding pond in St. Louis Park last month. The driver, Marian Guerrido, escaped, but two children who were passengers in the car died. Three others are recovering in the hospital. 

It's believed information recorded by the "black box" might tell officers what happened in the seconds before the crash. The devices are key in criminal cases, and even lawsuits.

Meanwhile, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is pushing to make them mandatory in every car next year. That's raising privacy concerns.

A recording device is tucked under the dashboad. It's about the size of a deck of cards and acts like a short-term driving diary, storing key information. "Your vehicle is recording your throttle, whether brakes are applied, whether the seat belt was on," says Milli Anderson, a career mechanic.

Unlike an airplane's black box which records everything, a car's records in a continuous loop, over and over every 30 seconds, only transmitting data to a car's computer when there's a crash or airbag deployment. The seconds before and after are automatically preserved, which is enough time to log a driver's action and vehicle reaction.

Frank Douma, who works with the U of M's Center for Transportation Studies says the idea is to identify safety problems. "As cars get more complex we have less control ourselves over what's going on. It's important we have a complete picture of what's happening within the car and whoever may be driving it."

The information is becoming valuable to police as well.

In Minnesota, all it takes is a search warrant and officers can access the box to investigate criminal cases, and lawyers can subpoena it for lawsuits. Since there's no off switch, "it can be abused," according to Chuck Samuelson of the American Civil Liberties Union.

He worries the technology is too intrusive.