Privacy Law

Witness for the prosecution: Your own car?


Originally, automobile manufacturers installed so-called black box recorders in vehicles for their own benefit.

In case of any product liability suit, they wanted to be able to prove that airbags had deployed properly. But then GM expanded on that concept in 1999 by installing devices that could also capture vehicle speed, RPMs and braking, the Indianapolis Star reports.

By 2010, most vehicles had them, and it is expected that the federal government likely will make them mandatory. That means most drivers will soon have a potential witness for the prosecution lurking amidst their vehicle’s inner workings. If they have an accident, prosecutors can look to the recorder to determine what happened.

Speed and braking are critical factors in accidents, so deputy prosecutor Tom Hirschauer of Marion County, Indiana, says the vehicle black boxes can be powerful evidence against a driver. The jury is still out on whether warrants are required to search the devices in multiple jurisdictions throughout the U.S., but he says his office routinely gets them.

Regardless, privacy advocate John Whitehead sees a problem. An attorney, he founded the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil rights group.

“We’re on the losing end of a technological revolution that has already taken hostage our computers, our phones, our finances, our entertainment, our shopping, our appliances and now, it’s focused its sights on our cars,” he told the newspaper. “Most people are not aware that evidence is there or available to prosecutors.”

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