California Law Protects Privacy of Drivers with Black Box-Equipped Cars
California on September 22 became the first state to pass a law protecting the privacy of drivers whose vehicles come with "black boxes" — recording devices that store data on how a car is being driven in the seconds before a collision. The law, signed by Gov. Gray Davis, stipulates that car owners must be told their cars carry the recorders, and says the information can only be downloaded with consent from the driver, a court order or anonymously for medical or safety research. "The information was supposed to be used for safety purposes," said Kevin O'Neill, legislative director for Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, who authored the bill. "Now that different people have access to the information, there seemed to be a need for more protection." Experts say the small, rectangular device tucked away under the seats of about 25 million vehicles can record speed, the use of brakes and seat belts, and the deployment of airbags, all vital information in reconstructing the events seconds before a crash. But unlike airplane black boxes, these devices don't gather voice recordings. They are the "brain" of the airbag system and come to life only when the airbags are activated in a frontal crash, said Jim Schell, manager of product-safety communications at General Motors. The device records the five seconds prior to the accident, giving engineers the facts they need to reconstruct the collision and enhance the vehicle's safety, Schell said. But as the technology to download the information became cheaper and more accessible, lawyers, insurance companies and law enforcement agents became aware of the potential uses of the data, raising concerns among privacy advocates, who said most drivers are not told their cars carry the devices. O'Neill said the new law won't block the use of the recorders, only protect drivers from unauthorized use of private information protected under the Fourth Amendment.