Black boxes in new cars: are they safe for our data?

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It’s a little chip that will make a lot of noise. Since the first of May, cars sold in France are equipped with black boxes, a device that can record the data and technical parameters of motorists, in order to analyze the causes of a possible accident. 

This small box, recording everything that happens before and during an accident, makes it possible for the police to analyze accidents and to identify the responsibility of the parties involved.

These devices are also used to compile anonymous statistics in order to prevent accidents, especially as more and more connected vehicles are introduced on the car market.

A sensitive point regarding personal data: should the box be seized to obtain information or should it communicate seamlessly with the authorities by remote transmission? 

In accordance with French law, it is planned that the boxes transmit the data at the time of the accident to the car manufacturer, who will then be able to provide the necessary information to the police.

This means that the data will then be stored outside the boxes, which raises many ethical questions in France.

Yet, the system has existed for many years in the United States, where it is mandatory and quite well accepted. It is even increasingly requested by consumer associations to prevent the risk of accidents.  

One problem which did cause concern in the United States, was the access by the authorities in a framework that was not secure enough because it posed a fairness problem of the evidence given that at the beginning the authorities accessed it without a warrant and therefore without procedural guarantees. 

One problem which did cause concern in the United States was the fact that authorities could access black box data without a warrant, calling the integrity of the process into question. 

Subsequently, there were several court decisions that indicated that it was now necessary to obtain a warrant in order to search this data.  

In general, the main benefit of black boxes is safety for road users, from two angles: On one hand, reducing accidents thanks to the data gathered, and on the other, an expected improved driver behaviour caused by the feeling of surveillance, and a potential improvement of reflexes. 

However, the debate is not new, and the CNIL has been issuing opinions on the subject for several years. A lot of data is already sent to car manufacturers. Making the box mandatory is where the change happens and what feeds a whole series of doubts and uncertainties about the respect of our privacy and our freedom of movement.

Concerns are thus encouraged to be tempered. Despite the increased surveillance and driving restrictions, the infringement of this freedom would still be considered reasonable by the legislator in view of the objective pursued, i.e. to reduce traffic accidents.

By Melissa Walehiane

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