All Eyes On Me
By Brock Yates March, 29, 2002

"Even paranoids have enemies," pronounced a bumper sticker on the back of a ratty old Ford I spotted several years ago. I suppose my reaction was vaguely sympathetic, considering a mild disposition in that direction, especially when it comes to the meddling of the nanny state in my personal affairs. I was reminded of the nanny's omnipresence when the subject of automotive black boxes was raised in a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal. The piece concentrated on the question of how the data from air-bag "Event Data Recorders" or EDR's, can be stored and employed. Who owns the data? The owner of the vehicle? The government? Trial lawyers? The police?

All current GM and Ford automobiles and trucks contain EDR's that capture a mass of vehicle data five seconds prior to a crash; speed, throttle settings, braking activity, cornering forces, etc. Other manufacturers are sure to follow, especially if government regulations mandate such devices in the name of safety. (And aren't all such regulations promulgated in the broad-brush panacea of "public safety"?)

Not only will your future automobile probably contain an EDR, but under the hood will be a neat little computer called the OBD, or
On-Board Diagnostic system. It records engine data, presumably to help technicians perform proper maintenance and make the repairs. But critics claim that OBD's have the potential of poking into the driving habits of the owner to a point of invading privacy, much like their sister EDR's.

"Sir, your OBD and your EDR indicate that you drive at a steady 75 mph, which is illegal, that you fail to change your oil at the correct intervals, that you drive one-handed while using your cell phone and pick your nose at red lights. This voids your warranty."

Two computer brains -- one under the hood and the other packed in your air bag system -- record your every move behind the wheel; seemingly harmless enough unless you're involved in a crash or a breakdown, when all that data becomes somebody else's -- probably to your detriment.

Moreover, most manufacturers are offering satellite uplink connections to your vehicle. General Motors
'OnStar' system is prototypical and probably the best known. This looks good at first glance; a simple device for service information without penalty. So too for computerized toll payments like New York State's "EZ Pass" system that permits motorists to ease past toll booths while paying later. A neat convenience that helps to ease congestion. But the potential for mischief is great. ("Sir, the computer says you ran between toll stations A and B at 86 mph, which is 21 miles an hour over the legal limit. You are therefore fined $600 and your license is suspended.") New York authorities deny that such expansion of "EZ Pass" is intended, but that capability is within easy reach of the Big Mamma computer controlling the system.

Add photo radar and other highly sophisticated traffic monitoring devices already in use in Canada and Europe and we face the possibility that all vehicular traffic can be monitored at all times. It's a lay-up with modern computer technology to keep track and record the movement of every motor vehicle in the nation. It could be justified on the basis of safety (of course), speed monitoring, emergency scene responses, gridlock avoidance, etc.

Want to know where every suspected drug dealer, Arab flight student, anti-government dissident, child molester, rapist or Mafioso is driving at the moment? Just hit the "enter" key.

We have opened Pandora's box with the computer. How we square it with privacy issues is a dilemma. We are continually shocked to learn how much data is already stored regarding our personal lives, particularly relating to health and financial issues. But one refuge from the probing eye of Big Brother remains the personal motor vehicle. We can still move about with relative freedom, presuming we obey a few simple rules of the road.

But the potential for intrusion by all manner of snoops ranging from police agencies, insurance providers, government safety types, employers, etc. is on the horizon. Presumably legislators of all political persuasions will rally to prevent any such insidious peeking, leaving only we closet paranoids to fret.

But make no mistake, the ability for computers to look over our shoulders ever millisecond that we are behind the wheel is a clear and present danger. One can only hope that concerns for "public safety" will not totally destroy freedom in this rare and cherished sanctuary of personal privacy.

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