The Free Press, Mankato, MN


January 24, 2014

Driver privacy legislation warranted

Why it matters: Those "black boxes" mandated by the federal government provide benefits but also risks to privacy without adequate legislative protection

An off-the-cuff remark by an auto executive has reawakened a controversy about those “black boxes” in cars.

At a consumer electronics show in Las Vegas earlier this month, a top Ford official said – and later retracted – that technology now in cars could help determine when drivers break the law.

He later said the company does not track its customers without their approval or consent and he was talking hypothetically.

“I absolutely left the wrong impression about how Ford operates. We do not track our customers in their cars without their approval or their consent,” he said. “The statement I made in my eyes was hypothetical and I want to clear this up.”

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said while the remarks themselves were retracted, the capability is true. Fellow senator Al Franken requested and received a report from the Congressional Accountability Office that automakers are storing private data collected from onboard navigation systems. Nine of the 10 companies said they don’t share personally identifiable data or sell that information.

Franken was still concerned about the GAO report, worrying about the potential of misuse. There are already steps to protect information collected by other means.

In October last year and now again this month, Klobuchar and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., introduced the Driver Privacy Act. This law proposes that a driver’s personal privacy data collected by an Event Data Recorder be protected. While many states already have such laws on the books, this would be a national standard needed because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is ordering such devices be included in all vehicles.

According to the senators’ offices, the NHTSA estimates more than 96 percent of new 2013 car models have recorders.

According to Klobuchar’s office, a recorder can collect at least 45 pieces of information about a vehicle’s operation including direction, speed, seatbelt usage and other data. The proposed legislation would not allow dissemination of his information except in specific instances, including the vehicle owner’s permission or by court order.

Advances in technology without a doubt play a key role in improving our lives. Data can help auto makers build safer cars, and transportation specialists can use such data to improve traffic patterns and road construction.

But with these advances come new challenges in preserving people’s privacy. In some cases, people may not see this as an intrusion. But we should be given the opportunity to make that choice.

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