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Home > Privacy and Government > Government Threats to Privacy > Anti-Privacy Law and Regulation > Automobile "Black Boxes"

Automobile "Black Boxes"

The modern automobile has so many advanced technologies built into it that it could be considered a computer with an engine and wheels. Many people are interested in the data developed by this computer, but they do not seem so interested in asking car-owners for permission to collect and use it.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration may soon require all automobiles to have Event Data Recorders (EDRs) or "Black Boxes" similar to those found on commercial airliners. It is currently considering whether it should require collection of standardized data by EDRs that are going to be installed anyway.

Some auto manufacturers have been installing black boxes on their own for several years. Between 65 and 90 percent of light vehicles already have EDRs installed on them. Such recorders can provide useful information that helps determine what caused individual accidents and, in the aggregate, data that may be used to improve overall traffic safety.

On the other hand, EDRs can be regarded as an intrusive monitoring system that catalogues the movements and behavior of drivers, whittling away their privacy and autonomy. Black box data may be used by crash investigators to charge drivers with crimes.

The privacy-sensitive solution to this conundrum is to offer consumers the option of whether to allow EDRs on their automobiles. If black boxes are installed, car-owners should be able to decide when they run and what they do. Insurers may agree to give drivers lower rates if an EDR will show that they drive safely. But if insurers, auto manufacturers, or government authorities wish to recover data about drivers' behavior, they should be willing to pay consumers for the privilege. Those willing to have their driving behavior revealed will accept EDRs. Those unwilling will not.

The following text was submitted to Privacilla as sample text for letters to Congress expressing displeasure with mandatory Black Boxes. The name and address of your Representative can be found on the House of Representatives' "Write Your Representative" page.


Your name, address and zip code

Honorable (full name)
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senator (last name):

(body of letter)


Your name, address and zip code

Honorable (full name)
House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear (Mr. or Ms.) (last name):

(body of letter)


(Draft letter body. The more you make it your own -- with your own language and thoughts, so that it seems less like a form letter -- the better. If you’re short on time, however, just cut and paste.)

It is my understanding that the National Transportation Safety Board has recently issued a ruling that will require electronic data recorders or "black boxes" in all new cars manufactured in the United States.

I am concerned about the likelihood that such technology, which has its legitimate uses in improving safety, will be misused by some in government, in violation of my rights and freedoms, and those of my fellow citizens.

If black boxes are not made optional or programmable by car owners, I believe legislation is needed that will (a) help ensure that every vehicle owner is aware of the presence, the functions, and the possible uses of any electronic data recorder (EDR) in his/her vehicle, and (b) forbid NTSB or any other agency of government to deem black box information to be in any sense public, except perhaps in the statistical aggregate. I believe, in other words, that the owner of the vehicle should be the owner of the information. At present, vehicle owners have no legal protections to keep them from being forced to turn over black box information to another party, if a court order so demands.

History suggests that once cars are equipped for limited data recording, as many already are, some in government will argue that it is for drivers’ own good to collect more, and that the data is the property of the government. Before our society goes much farther in such a troubling direction, I hope that Congress and the president will enact the safeguards necessary to protect our rights, our freedoms, and our privacy.

I will be watching to see what actions Congress and NTSB take concerning EDRs and their use.

Sincerely yours,

(Your full name)


Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: "Event Data Recorders," National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Department of Transportation (June 14, 2004)

Event Data Recorder Discussion Forum, National Lightning Owners Club

Crash Data Retrieval System Vehicle List Web page, Vetronix

FAQ re: Crash Data Recorders Web site,

Event Data Recorder Program Web site, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Comments? (Subject: AutoBlackBox)

[updated 12/15/04]

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