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Before the
Washington, D.C. 20590

Docket No. NHTSA-2004-18029
August 13, 2004

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) respectfully submits these comments on the proposed rulemaking by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to standardize the data format of event data recorders (EDRs), or "black boxes," in passenger vehicles.[1] Our comments focus on the privacy implications of EDR technology.

The NHTSA should protect the privacy of vehicle owners and drivers with respect to their EDR data in order to effectively meet the goals of NHTSA. The primary mission of NHTSA is to increase the safety of motor vehicles, reduce deaths and injuries from motor vehicle crashes, and to research driver and traffic safety. In order to ensure public acceptance of EDR data collection and its use for NHTSA purposes, such as in centralized, statistical research databases,[2] basic privacy protections must be provided and clearly communicated to the public.

Many privacy risks develop incrementally, and to address these risks, it is important to preemptively establish privacy protections. EDRs present serious privacy issues that have been developing incrementally. Just two months ago, NHTSA claimed that it did not intend to require manufacturers to install EDRs. Now, the National Transportation Safety Board has called for mandatory EDR installation following the investigation of the 2003 accident involving an elderly driver that resulted in ten deaths.[3] Requiring EDR installation together with standardizing the EDR data format as detailed in this proposed rulemaking would create a vast government-mandated data collection regime that demands privacy protection. And because EDRs are following the pattern of an incremental privacy risk, it is important to protect drivers' data now before the devices are routinely connected to communications systems that will allow remote access or periodic data transfer.

Privacy involves a series of rights and responsibilities in personal information known as Fair Information Practices (FIPs), upon which our federal privacy statutes are based. Furthermore, other government agencies, corporations, and foreign government organizations have adopted FIPs when creating privacy laws and policies. These guidelines would provide an effective framework for addressing the privacy issues surrounding EDRs because they provide strong, privacy rules. FIPs incorporate eight core principles:

EPIC Recommendations

The NHTSA has addressed only one of the principles of Fair Information Practices in the proposed rule while generally ignoring the others. Only "notice" is provided, a right deriving from the Openness Principle. We think it irresponsible to focus solely on the issue of notice and disclosure. In proposing the EDR data standards, the NHTSA is creating a new industry-wide data collection regime and must take responsibility for the privacy implications created.

The NHTSA claims that it "do[es] not have authority over such areas as who owns the information that has been recorded."[4] However, avoiding this issue not only abdicates the responsibility that comes with creating a powerful new data collection regime, but as mentioned, potentially endangers the mission of the NHTSA.

Therefore, we recommend that the proposed rule be amended as follows in order to protect the privacy of vehicle owners and drivers and to advance the mission of the NHTSA:

  1. The vehicle owner should be explicitly recognized as the owner of the EDR data.
  2. Consent of the vehicle owner should be required for the disclosure of EDR driving data to the NHTSA or any other government or commercial organization, including automotive insurance companies. Such consent should be fully consensual, meaning for example that automotive insurance contracts should not be conditioned upon access to EDR data.
  3. For EDRs that use communications systems – such as OnStar, which uses wireless phone networks – the EDR should not initiate communication unless an accident is detected or if the driver uses a manual feature to initiate communications for purposes of transmitting driving data.
  4. The vehicle identification number (VIN) should be partially collected because it contains useful information for NHTSA and researchers. However, the unique serial number portion of the VIN – a personal identifier – should not be collected.
  5. The NHTSA should create a website aimed at educating the public on EDR technology, its uses, and which organizations may gain access to EDR data.
  6. In order to maintain the accuracy of EDR information, the vehicle owner should be instructed to have the EDR inspected if the vehicle has been involved in an accident, flooding or fire.
  7. While most of the foregoing recommendations involve changes to the proposed EDR notice in the vehicle owner manual, the NHTSA should craft companion regulations consistent with these recommendations to fully protect the privacy rights of vehicle owners and drivers.

Many other "customers" for EDR driving information are planning to gain access to the increasing amounts of EDR data being generated. In particular, the automotive insurance industry has begun to seek and use EDR data. Its motivation to continue to do so will increase as the amount and availability of EDR data grows, benefiting from the NHTSA standardization initiative. While some insurance uses are legitimate and required, others such as risk-based pricing driven by the collection and analysis of EDR present other serious issues. While such issues may fall outside the mandate of the NHTSA in this proposed rulemaking, the NHTSA has the responsibility to provide basic privacy protections and clearly communicate to the public how EDR technology will be used.

By ignoring the issue of real time collection of EDR data – a feature not yet widely implemented – the NHTSA is creating another serious privacy risk. Although the feature is not provided on the majority of EDR systems installed today, it will certainly become widely prevalent well before the date that the proposed rule will become effective in 2008 and should therefore be addressed in this rulemaking.

If these privacy risks are not addressed in a serious manner, other organizations – both government and private – will successfully gain access to EDR data in violation of individual privacy rights. The resulting legal and political challenges from the huge class of affected people – all vehicle owners and drivers – will undoubtedly endanger the primary purpose of EDR data: for the NHTSA and other Department of Transportation agencies to improve vehicle and roadway safety.

NHTSA Studies of EDR Privacy Implications

The NHTSA and other Department of Transportation agencies have long recognized the importance of protecting individual privacy in the EDR context. Specifically, the NHTSA has consistently maintained that the vehicle owner also owns the EDR data, although it fails to include this finding in the proposed rulemaking.[5] In other reports the NHTSA said, "It is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) position that the owner of the subject vehicle owns the data from the Event Data Recorder (EDR). In order to gain access to the data the government would have to receive a release for the data from the owner of the vehicle."[6] Additionally, in a 2001 report to Congress, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found that the vehicle owner "at any time should own the EDR data."[7]

Rather than requiring a short notice buried in vehicle owners' manuals, NHTSA should embrace its own findings and recommendations in protecting driver privacy in EDR data. (Recommendation One) The proposed notice at § 563.11 "Information in owner's manual" should be amended to include the following statement: "The EDR data belongs to the vehicle owner." (Recommendation Two) The proposed notice at § 563.11 "Information in owner's manual" should be amended to include the following statements: "Your consent is required for the data to be disclosed to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – a federal agency that gathers information about traffic accidents to improve vehicle and road safety – or any other government or private organization, including automotive insurance companies."

Advances in EDR Data Collection

As the NHTSA begins the important task of regulating the collection of driving information through EDRs, the rapid advances of EDR technology demand that the NHTSA seriously analyze the privacy implications of these new features. In the majority of EDR systems, the data is not collected in real time but rather after an accident or traffic law violation. However, an increasing number of EDR systems allow for data collection in real time.

Additionally, newer EDR systems allow for data collection over communications networks rather than via a manual device. The first generation of these systems is called automatic collision notification (ACN) systems, which automatically transmit driving information to an emergency response center when an accident is detected. These systems include the OnStar system, available on vehicles from the many automotive manufacturers including Acura, Audi, General Motors, Isuzu, Subaru and Volkswagon. High-end European manufacturers use similar ACN-enabled EDRs from ATX Technologies, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Rolls-Royce. (Recommendation Three) The proposed notice at § 563.11 "Information in owner's manual" should be amended to include the following statements (for vehicles that contain ACN or EDR that are otherwise connected to a communications network): "The event data recorder is connected to a communication system capable of automatically contacting emergency services when it detects an accident. The event data recorder will only initiate communication in the event of an accident or if the driver uses the manual feature to initiate communication with either emergency services or the communications provider (e.g. for a service that provides driving directions from an operator)."

Even more advanced systems continue to be developed such as the MACBox (Mobile Accident Camera) – thus far only used in research studies – which automatically uploads driving information over wireless phone networks, including trip length, trip duration, route choice and second-by-second speed and acceleration.[8] Other advances in EDR technology include video recording. Another MACbox model, not yet widely used in passenger vehicles, would record video and automatically uploads this and other driving information to a central database.[9]

ACN-enabled EDRs have already been used as a law enforcement surveillance tool and such use will increase as more vehicles become so equipped. In 2003, the FBI procured a wiretap order requiring an ACN provider to remotely configure the system to go into "listen mode," allowing audio surveillance of those in the vehicle.[10] Because this strategy interfered with the emergency features of the system, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth held that the order was not proper.[11] However, the Court held that generally an ACN provider is a "telecommunications carrier," and therefore required by statute to assist law enforcement with carrying out such orders.[12] The extent to which ACN-enabled EDR systems can accommodate such surveillance without interfering with the emergency features is unknown, although engineering the systems to accommodate the dual-use would be straightforward.

The trend towards these advanced EDR features – location data, video data, real time collection and law enforcement access – will undoubtedly continue. In 2001, the Federal Communications Commission mandated that wireless phone carriers upgrade their communications network for the Enhanced 911 (E911) system. E911 relays the Global Positioning System (GPS) location data of the wireless caller to increase the effectiveness of emergency police and medical services. These features are still under implementation but are scheduled for completion in December 2005. ComCARE – a large national coalition of organizations (health care, emergency medical services, wireless providers, law enforcement) – is working to establish ACN systems using the E911 system.

Third-Party Access to EDR Data

Vehicle owners and drivers of vehicles must be notified and assured that EDR data will not be released or made available to third parties without their consent. Rather than requiring a short notice in vehicle owners' manuals, NHTSA should embrace its own findings and recommendations in protecting driver privacy in EDR data. (Same as Recommendation Two) The proposed notice at § 563.11 "Information in owner's manual" should be amended to include the following statement: "Your consent is required for the data to be disclosed to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – a federal agency that gathers information about traffic accidents to improve vehicle and road safety – or any other government or private organization, including automotive insurance companies."

EDRs are primarily represented and marketed as a technology to improve the safety of vehicles and roadways. But all of the stakeholders realize the significant secondary uses, some of which may eventually overshadow the original goals. For example, NHTSA lists the following groups as "customers" of EDR data: insurance companies, vehicle manufacturers, government, law enforcement, plaintiffs, defense attorneys, judges, juries, courts, prosecutors, human factors research, state insurance commissioners, parents groups, fleets and drivers, medical injury guideline data usage, vehicle owner, and transportation researchers and academics.[13]

The automotive insurance industry has been identified as one of the major future customers of EDR data. While it has some legitimate needs to access and use EDR data, basic privacy protections must be included in the NHTSA proposed rule to protect the personal privacy of vehicle owners and drivers. Economic opportunities have already arisen for supplying EDR data to insurance companies in a semi-automated fashion. One such product is "EDR InSight," a product that "... offers access to a network of service providers throughout the United States who are equipped with the Vetronix Crash Data Retrieval (CDR) system to harvest the "black box" information and a secure data vault for these providers to transmit and store the information for secure viewing by the claims professional."[14] If commercial data brokers, such as Choicepoint, purchase access to such databases, EDR driving data could become part of the driving history report held on consumers by such data brokers.

As EDR technology continues advance, the specter of centralized databases automatically populated by communication-enabled EDR systems – such as ACN – becomes a reality. If such databases are built, insurance companies will likely gain access to them. According to NHTSA, insurance companies have maintained that "an argument can be made that the existing standard policy language may allow the insurance company access to data from the EDR."[15] Such centralized databases are envisioned by EDR manufacturers: "The cumulative data stored in the security vault could then be made available to the public, government agencies, auto manufacturers, insurance companies and other authorized entities as needed."[16]

Finally, a recent Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal article finds, as did the NHTSA, that the vehicle owner also owns his or her EDR driving information. "There are somewhat conflicting views as to who owns the EDR and the data collected by it. However, the prevailing view is that the owner of the vehicle ultimately owns the information contained within the EDR."[17]

Vehicle Identification Numbers

The proposed rulemaking does not include the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) as part of the required data standard even though identifying the make, model and manufacturing origin of the vehicle – each encoded in the VIN – is important information for NHTSA researchers. The first eleven of the seventeen digits includes the useful information: country of manufacture (digit one), manufacturer (digit two), vehicle type or manufacturing division (digit three), vehicle features (digit four through eight), model year (digit ten) and assembly plant (digit eleven). The remaining digits (twelve though seventeen) are the unique identifier of the vehicle – and the vehicle owner.

Vehicle owners and drivers should be notified and assured that the full VINs will not be collected by EDRs. The primary use of EDR identified by NHTSA – the research of and improvement of vehicle safety – only requires collection of the non-serial portion of the VIN. Therefore, we recommend that the EDR data format include collection of the VIN but only the first eleven digits. (Recommendation Four) The proposed notice at § 563.11 "Information in owner's manual" should be amended to include the following statements: "Only the part of your vehicle identification number (VIN) that includes information about the make and model of your vehicle will be collected by the event data recorder. The unique serial number portion of the VIN will not be collected."

While not traditionally considered personally identifiable information, the VIN has increasingly become personally identifiable. Obviously people other than the owner can drive a particular vehicle, but often the owner and the driver are one in the same. With the increased availability of commercial data brokering services, determining who owns a car identified by the VIN is simple. For example, the ChoicePoint "Vehicle Identification Number Services Plus" offers "detailed information about registered vehicles" when a VIN is queried.[18]

Although the VIN is not included in the proposed NHTSA data format, it is often included in actual EDR systems. For example, the OnStar system stores and transmits the VIN over wireless networks.[19]

The Public is Concerned about EDR and Could Benefit From Awareness Efforts

EDR devices have been in use in passenger automobiles since 1994 and their installation and use in new cars continues to increase. However, the public is largely unaware of EDR systems, how they operate, and who has access to the driving information they record. (Recommendation Five) NHTSA should, as part of the proposed rulemaking, mandate the creation of an EDR information website to educate the public about: (a) EDR technology and how it is used; (b) what types of government agencies and private companies may gain access to their EDR driving information and under what circumstances; (c) and what privacy rights vehicle owners have with respect to their EDR data.

Sixty-five to ninety percent of model year 2004 passenger cars and other light record driving information data.[20] An estimated twenty-five million cars in the United States are already monitored by EDR systems.[21]

However, the public remains uninformed about this form of data collection. According to the president of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety – a group funded by the automakers – "If vehicle owners are not made aware of these systems, then potentially we have problems. By and large, the public is unaware they are in their vehicles."[22] According to an insurance industry group, nearly two-thirds of people surveyed were not aware of the existence of EDR systems.[23] At the same time, the members of the public who are aware of EDR and its privacy implications are deeply concerned about the technology.[24]

EDR Accuracy

NHTSA should seriously consider the ramifications of setting low survivability standards for EDR. Proper functioning of EDR systems becomes more critical as third parties including, for example, insurance companies and prosecutors are provided access to the collected driving data for their use. (Recommendation Six) The proposed notice at § 563.11 "Information in owner's manual" should be amended to include the following statements: "If your vehicle has been involved in a serious accident or has been subject to flooding or fire, your event data recorder may have been damaged. If it was involved in one of these situations, please have your event data recorder inspected by an authorized dealer."
Problems with EDR reliability are likely to develop. As the Federal Highway Administration noted, "The EDR's [sic] cannot necessarily be expected to operate flawlessly and continuously given the technical and cost restraints and practical issues such as the possibility of damage to the EDR in the accident, unavailability of electrical power after the accident, and the likely degree of inattention of motorists to the EFT over the life of the vehicle, among other factors."[25]
While the evidentiary reliability of the data continues be examined by courts, NHTSA must determine the survivability requirements in this proposed rulemaking. The proposal only calls for a "basic level of survivability," not including protection from, for example, fluid immersion.[26]

Respectfully Submitted,


Chris Jay Hoofnagle
Associate Director

Patrick Mueller

[1] Event Data Recorders, 69 Fed. Reg. 32932, Jun. 14, 2004, to be codified at 49 CFR Part 563.
[2] Such databases include: (a) The National Automotive Sampling System (NASS) is the mechanism through which NHTSA collects nationally representative data on motor vehicle traffic crashes. (b) Special Crash Investigations (SCI) are conducted by NHTSA on crashes that are of special interest to NHTSA such as fatal and seriously injured children and adults in minor or moderately severe crashes involving an air bag. NHTSA Event Data Recorder Working Group, Privacy Concerns for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (1999).
[3] See Associated Press, Black Boxes Recommended For Cars, Chicago Sun-Times, August 4, 2004, and John Crawley, U.S. Safety Board Wants Mandatory Auto Recorders, Reuters, August 3, 2003.
[4] NHTSA, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking ("Event Data Recorders") 32945 (2004).
[5] NHTSA EDR Working Group, Event Data Recorders: Summary of Findings 53 (2001).
[6] NHTSA EDR Working Group, Privacy Concerns for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (1999).
[7] Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, A Report to Congress on Electronic Control Module Technology for Use in Recording Vehicle Parameters During a Crash (2001).
[8] Jane Sanders, Speed Racers, Research Horizons, February 9, 2002.
[9] John Mackey et. al., Digital Eye-Witness Systems, International Symposium on Transportation Recorders, May 3-5, 1999.
[10] Company v. United States, 349 F.3d 1132, 1146 (9th Cir. 2003).
[11] The concern was that if the car was in an accident and the FBI was not listening to the line, the EDR would be unable to automatically contact emergency services. Id.
[12] Id. at 1137-1144.
[13] NHTSA, Using EDR Safety Data, available at http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/edr-site/safety.html (last visited July 29, 2004).
[14] Injury Sciences, "EDR InSight: Thinking Inside the Box," available at http://www.injurysciences.com/Products/Data_Harvesting.asp (last accessed July 30, 2004).
[15] NHTSA EDR Working Group, Event Data Recorders: Summary of Findings 54 (2001).
[16] NHSA EDR Working Group, Event Data Recorders: Summary of Findings 55 (2001) (emphasis added).
[17] David Katz, Privacy in the Private Sector, 29 Rutgers Computer & Techn. L.J. 163, 164 (2003).
[18] Vehicle Identification Number Services Plus, available at http://www.choicepoint.com/business/pc_ins/us_8.html (last accessed July 29, 2004); See also Chris Hoofnagle, Big Brother's Little Helpers: How ChoicePoint and Other Commercial Data Brokers Collect and Package Your Data for Law Enforcement, 29 N.C.J. Int'l L. & Com. Reg. 595.
[19] Roger Allen, How GPS and OnStar Work, Electronic Design, March 31, 2003, available at http://www.elecdesign.com/Articles/ArticleID/2825/2825.html (last visited July 29, 2004).
[20] NHTSA, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking ("Event Data Recorders") 32933 (2004).
[21] Ralph Vartabedian, Black Boxes Prompt Big Brother Objections, Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2003.
[22] Cindy Skrzycki, Data Recorders in Cars Might Open Pandora's Black Box, Washington Post, July 27, 2004.
[23] Matthew Fordahl, 'Black Box' For Cars a Surprise, Washington Times, July 2, 2003.
[24] See Cindy Skrzycki, Data Recorders in Cars Might Open Pandora's Black Box, Washington Post, July 27, 2004, and Ralph Vartabedian, Black Boxes Prompt Big Brother Objections, Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2003, and Don Oldenburg, The Snoop in Your Coupe; Data Recorders Interest Parents, Police, Washington Post, September 9, 2003, and Christopher Jensen, 'Black Box' in Cars an Invasion of Privacy?, Seattle Times, August 15, 2003, and Jeffrey Selingo, It's the Cars, Not the Tires, That Squeal, New York Times, October 25, 2001.
[25] NHSA EDR Working Group, Potential Legal Issues for Federal Highway Administration (1998).
[26] NHTSA, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking ("Event Data Recorders") 32943 (2004).

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