Auto groups move to ensure cars don't fuel privacy violations

U.S. Department of Transportation proposes mandate for black boxes in all vehicles by Sept. 1, 2014.

If automobile manufacturers and the AAA have their way, the next leakage of personal data won't be from the computers in cars and trucks.

Last week, the Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed a requirement that all vehicles built after September 1, 2014 include event data recorders (EDR) known more commonly as black boxes.

The AAA, formerly known as the American Automobile Association, isn't against EDRs, but it is insisting Congress act to protect the privacy of motorists.

“Data recording devices play a critical role in advancing vehicle safety, but motorists should own the data their vehicle generates,” Robert Darbelnet, the president and CEO of AAA, said in a statement. “Congress needs to ensure motorist rights are protected by passing legislation that prohibits access to data without permission from the owner or from a court order, unless the data is used for research purposes and cannot be tracked to a single vehicle,” he said.

The AAA was joined by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which also voiced privacy concerns surrounding the DOT proposal.

"Event data recorders help our engineers understand how cars perform in the real world,  but ... automakers do not access EDR data without consumer permission, and any government requirements to install EDRs on all vehicles must include steps to protect consumer privacy," the organization said.

The boxes record information before and after a crash, but do not run continuously while the car is in operation. And unlike black boxes on airplanes, the devices do not record audio. EDRs record information such as speed, seat belt use, air bag deployment, and brake and gas pedal positions. The data is typically used in safety studies and not in accident re-creations.

But much like the tracking of Web surfing and buying habits of Internet users has spawned a feeding frenzy of data collection by marketing and retail firms; crash data is of interest to investigators and insurance companies.

But unlike the surveillance economy that thrives today on the Internet, where third-party data collectors harevest users’ personal information from their digital tracks, the data in the car is locked within the owner's private property.

There is already sensitivity to the Internet issues with Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and the Government Accountability Office researching the issues. An FTC report from this year, recommends Congress pass a law giving consumers some level of access to information data collectors compile.

If the DOT proposal passes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will enforce the rules. The automotive industry however, is already nearing the end of that road. For 2013 vehicle models, 91% have the EDRs, according to NHTSA, including all makes from General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.