Meet the Bill That Wants to Put Plane-Like Black Boxes in Our Cars

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Update: Forbes blogger and privacy expert Kashmir Hill noted that the post below originally made extrapolations from the language of the bill in question -- particularly in its assumption that the recording devices it mandates would track general trip information rather than crash-specific data. She's right. I've updated the post to reflect more specifically the types of voyage recording that the bill could potentially regulate, as well as her important catch, noted in the third paragraph, about changed language between different versions of the bill.

Infowars' Paul Joseph Watson, reading through Section 31406 of the "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act" (MAP-21) bill that's currently making its way through Congress, made a nice catch: The bill calls for "Mandatory Event Data Recorders" to be installed in new vehicles starting in the year 2015.

Yes. If the bill becomes law, cars manufactured in the U.S. will have black boxes -- similar to the recording devices that are standard inclusions on aircraft.

The privacy concerns here are obvious, though it's hard to know, precisely, how concerned we should actually be. "Event data recorders," on the one hand, could imply that the recording in question would be isolated to data surrounding crashes and other out-of-the-ordinary incidents. On the other hand, though, increasingly common are the types of black boxes that are issued by car insurance companies, which record not only crash data, but also trip length, trip speeds, acceleration and braking trends, and times of travel. A prior draft of the bill, Kashmir Hill pointed out to me, specified that the black box-like devices in question would "record up to 75 seconds of pre-crash data" -- which would seem to suggest the bill's original assumption that trip recording would be limited to accident tracking.

That specification, however, has since been stricken from MAP-21. And the current language of the bill purposely leaves open-ended the scope of the data recorders' recording power. The updated version leaves it to the Transportation Department, in consultation with Congress, to determine how much data the devices could and should ultimately record. (Two years after the law is enacted, the bill notes, the Transportation Department will be required to send a report to Congress -- which will include "recommendations on what, if any, additional data the event data recorder should be modified to record.") 

That change is telling in itself, and a reason to think that "mandatory black boxes in your car" does, indeed, carry some shades of Big Brother. It's true, as Hill points out, that tracking devices are already present in some 60 million vehicles, both foreign and domestic. The question, however, is whether those devices should be mandated, and regulated, as a matter of law. As it's currently written, the bill has the potential to take Americans' prototypical symbol of freedom and individuality -- the car -- and render it just another piece of trackable infrastructure.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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