Black Boxes In Cars Rev Up New Privacy Concerns

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(Memphis) A critical tool in catching criminals, or an invasion of privacy?

That's a question many motorists are asking about so called "black boxes" in cars.

We've all heard about black boxes in planes, but what you may not know is, there's likely one in the car you're driving.

In fact, roughly nine out of every ten new cars already have black boxes in them, as well as 150 million older cars.

However, privacy concerns are being raised as federal authorities push for manufacturers to have black boxes in all new cars by 2014.

They're small devices that play a big role in crash investigations.

"In today's modern vehicles, it's huge," Lieutenant Andy Shelton, commander of the Tennessee Highway Patrol's Critical Incident Response Team, said.

Yet most motorists don't even know they exist.

What looks like nonsensical computer code to the average person is a page full of critical data to an investigator.

"Sometimes it's the best piece of information we have," Lt. Shelton said.

It's information about a motorist's every move.

"Typically what we're going to see though is miles per hour, engine RPM, throttle position, whether or not the brake was on or off, whether or not the seat belt was being worn," Lt. Shelton said about what type of data is recorded.

Shelton's unit handles crash investigations for THP.

Despite their relative obscurity to the average person, manufacturers have used black boxes for years to monitor vehicle performance.

Now the data stored on them is increasingly being used to identify safety problems, but also by insurances companies and law enforcement in traffic accidents and even criminal cases.

Shelton said, "The airbag module will confirm what we do on site as far as our crash reconstruction, the basic physics, the math that we do. But it does something else for us, once we confirm the validity of the airbag module, it tells a story beyond that."

The black box was a notable piece of the evidence in the high-profile vehicular homicide case of former Memphis Police Officer Mark Weatherly.

Shelton actually served as a crash reconstruction expert at trial.

The On Your Side Investigators dug through boxes of evidence,  long stored away, from the case.

In 2009, Weatherly slammed his squad car into the vehicle Stephanie Montague was driving, killing her and injuring a passenger.

The black box data revealed Weatherly was going 101 miles per hour seconds before the crash.

He was acquitted on the vehicular homicide charge and a mistrial was declared on two others.

Lieutenant Shelton says he's seen it work both ways.

"Absolutely have used it in getting convictions, we've also used it in acquitting people of wrong doing."

However, privacy advocates worry about abuse, what's stored, and, more importantly, how that information is obtained and later used.

"There's a lot of gray area there," one man in downtown Memphis said.

"Are buyers even informed that these are in the vehicles?" asked a woman about the devices.

Shelton says you'd actually have to check your owner's manual to find out where the box is in your car.

First of all, they're not really "black" boxes.

They're called event data recorders or airbag control modules.

In fact, their primary function is to make sure the airbag system works.

"When there's impact, the impact triggers the mechanism to wake up and look at what's going on," Lt. Shelton said.

So unlike an airplane, the device isn't constantly running.

It records a small amount of data over a short period of time, typically about five seconds.

"I think the longest one out there right now is about 30 seconds worth of time that gets recorded," said Shelton.

According to Shelton, authorities can't just take the EDR without your permission. It requires authorization from the owner or a warrant.

Authorization some will be hesitant to provide.

"I don't think it takes a black box to tell if someone's going 110 miles per hour and hits a car, so I think old style investigations of accidents will most likely get it right," said one man visiting Memphis.

"When it comes down to it, the method of crash reconstruction really hasn't changed. We still have to use physics, the same long hand math we've always used.  We can't rely on a computer module to get the answers for us, we have to get the answers ourselves," Shelton said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is working on proposing a final rule about having event data recorders in all cars.

Meanwhile, some states have already enacted specific legislation regarding the gathering and use of black box data.

For example, in Arkansas, not only is the owner's written permission required to download the data, but dealerships must also disclose they're in a car at the time of purchase.

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