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Black boxes, in most new cars, stir privacy concerns

Crash investigators removed the air bag control module from a car used in a test crash training session for New York State Police.

Heather Ainsworth/New York Times

Crash investigators removed the air bag control module from a car used in a test crash training session for New York State Police.

When Timothy P. Murray crashed his government-issued Ford Crown Victoria in 2011, he was fortunate, as accidents go. Murray, then lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, was not seriously hurt; he told police he was wearing a seat belt and was not speeding.

But a different story soon emerged. Murray was driving more than 100 miles an hour and not wearing a seat belt, according to the computer in his car. He got a $555 ticket and later said he had fallen asleep.

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The case put Murray at the center of a growing debate over a little-known piece of equipment in the innards of a car: the event data recorder, commonly known as the black box.

About 96 percent of new vehicles sold in the United States have the boxes, and in September 2014, if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has its way, all will have them.

The boxes have long been used to assess vehicle performance. But data stored in the devices are increasingly being used as evidence in accidents and criminal cases. The trove of data has raised privacy concerns, including questions about who owns the data and what it can be used for.

To regulators, police, and insurers, the data are indispensable in investigations.

Black boxes “provide critical safety information that might not otherwise be available to NHTSA to evaluate what happened during a crash — and what future steps could be taken to save lives and prevent injuries,” David L. Strickland, the agency’s administrator, said in a statement.

Hard data

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But to consumer advocates, the data are the latest example of governments and companies having too much access to private information.

“These cars are equipped with computers that collect massive amounts of data,” said Khaliah Barnes of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a consumer group. “Without protections, it can lead to all kinds of abuse.”

Consumer advocates say government has yet to provide consistent guidelines.

“There are no clear standards that say this is a permissible use of the data and this is not,” Barnes said.

Fourteen states’ laws say that even though the data belong to the vehicle owner, law enforcement officials and those involved in litigation can gain access with a court order.

In these states, lawyers may subpoena the data, making the information accessible to third parties, including law enforcement and insurers that could cancel a driver’s policy or raise a premium based on the recorder’s data.

In Murray’s case, a court order was not required to release the data to investigators. Massachusetts is not among the states with a law governing access to the data. Murray, who did not contest the ticket and who resigned as lieutenant governor in June to become head of the Chamber of Commerce in Worcester, declined to comment.

Most states require that the presence of the black box be disclosed in the owner’s manual. But drivers who do not read the manual thoroughly may not know their vehicle can capture and record their speed, brake position, seat belt use, and other data.

The recorders capture only the few seconds surrounding a crash or air bag deployment. A separate device extracts the data, which is then analyzed with software programs.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group, supports the devices.

“Event data recorders help our engineers and researchers understand how cars perform in the real world, and one of our priorities for EDRs continues to be preserving consumer privacy,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman. “Automakers don’t access EDR data without consumer permission, and we believe that any government requirements to install EDR’s on all vehicles must include steps to protect consumer privacy.”

Beyond privacy, critics question the data’s reliability.

Black boxes, which sit under the center console, date to 1990, when General Motors introduced them.

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