In January 2014, the public comment period ended on a proposed law that would put so-called black boxes, called Event Data Recorders (EDR) in every new car sold by September 1, 2014, devices which have already been installed in 96% of new cars, unknown to car owners.

Current regulations require that the presence of the black box be disclosed in the owner’s manual. However, the vast majority of drivers who do not read the manual thoroughly may not know that their vehicle can capture and record their speed, brake position, seat belt use and other data each time they get behind the wheel.

Event Data Recorders Collect Accident Data

Event Date Recorders are about the size of a deck of cards with circuit boards inside that automatically record the actions of drivers and the responses of their vehicles. When a car is involved in a crash or when its airbags deploy, inputs from the vehicle’s sensors during the seconds before, during, and after impact are automatically preserved, to determine what was happening.

Black box data recorders gather information that can help investigators determine the causes of accidents and lead to safer vehicles. The traffic safety administration is also considering expanding the data requirement to include as many as 30 additional types of data, such as whether the vehicle’s electronic stability control was engaged, the driver’s seat position or whether the front-seat passenger was belted in.

Consumer Advocates Call for Privacy Protections

Privacy advocates say government regulators and automakers are spreading an intrusive technology without first putting in place policies to prevent misuse of the information collected. Should police be able to grab that data without a warrant? Should insurers access it so they can raise your rates?

Fourteen states, including New York, have passed laws that say that, even though the data belongs to the vehicle’s owner, law enforcement officials and those involved in civil litigation can gain access to the black boxes with a court order. In these states, lawyers may subpoena the data for criminal investigations and civil lawsuits, making the information accessible to third parties, including law enforcement or insurance companies that could cancel a driver’s policy or raise a driver’s premium based on the recorder’s data.

What the federal government ought to do is ensure that car buyers get prominent disclosure before they buy and that privacy protections are in place. But right now the trend is in the opposite direction.