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Dennis: Privacy laws needed amid cars’ tech boom

Having trouble understanding what the big deal is about “black boxes” in cars collecting crash data?

Maybe this will help:

It’s not just crash data. It’s not just black boxes. And it’s also not information that’s always kept confined in the cars.

“On Monday, the Government Accountability Office released a report stating that some automakers were keeping private data collected from onboard navigation systems and mapping apps for varying lengths of time, and that car owners could not request that it be erased,” The New York Times reported.

“The report, which was requested by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., found that the 10 automakers, navigation device manufacturers and application developers surveyed did not make owners aware of all the risks of the data collection, like allowing third parties to track their location or gather sensitive information such as their religious and political activities and preferences.

“‘Information about your location is extremely sensitive,’ said Franken, who is chairman of a Judiciary subcommittee on privacy and said he planned to introduce a bill that would legislate guidelines on when a vehicle owner’s location could be shared.

“‘If someone has a record of your location, they can figure out where you live, where you work, the doctors you visit and where your kids go to school.’”

The GAO report and Franken’s proposed bill help put another bill — the one introduced Tuesday by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Franken’s fellow Minnesotan, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar — in perspective.

Franken and about 19 other senators already support the Driver Privacy Act, Hoeven and Klobuchar’s bill. The act would make sure that the data recorded in a car’s event data recorder or “black box” belongs to the driver and can’t be retrieved by others without a warrant.

“Unlike the black boxes on airplanes, which continually record data including audio and system performance, the cars’ recorders capture only the few seconds surrounding a crash or air bag deployment,” the New York Times reported last year.

But the EDR’s capabilities are sure to increase. And one reason why the Driver Privacy Act deserves support is the precedent it would set of the government protecting people’s privacy.

Meanwhile, other electronic instruments that now are common in cars already are sharing information versus simply recording it. And that information includes the location data that’s determined using a GPS.

This “location privacy” is the focus of Franken’s proposed bill. Support for it is coming from what might seem like surprising sources:

Drivers’ privacy needs to be protected by law, said Alan Mulally, chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co., as more vehicles add Internet connectivity and location-based services, Bloomberg News reported.

“The company is ‘supportive and participating’ in talks with regulators who are considering such legislation, Mulally said. … He countered comments made last week by his global marketing chief, who said Ford knows when drivers of its vehicles violate traffic laws.”

Ford’s marketing chief was wrong; the company does not track its customers’ vehicles. But it probably could track those cars if it chose.

So, if we want Ford to keep refusing to fully exploit its technology, we’ll probably need laws, as Mulally himself seems to admit. In a competitive field, businesses can’t always be counted on to keep practicing self-restraint.

Dennis is the opinion editor of The Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at