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Part 1: A Spy In Your Car

KYW Regional Affairs Council

"Beware! Traffic Robo-Cops!"


By Ian Bush

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Electronic data monitoring devices (so-called "black boxes") are becoming more common in cars.  They're designed to record information about the vehicle at the time of an accident, and even give those behind the wheel a shot at lowering their insurance bills!

But privacy advocates fear we're putting Big Brother in the driver's seat.

("Flo," in a Progressive Insurance commercial:) "Listen up everybody!  You already know Snapshot rewards our customers for their good driving...."

But even if you don't have Progressive auto insurance, Flo will be happy to send you a palm-sized device that you plug into the on-board diagnostic port of your vehicle, usually located below the steering column.

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(A "Snapshot" device installed in the diagnostic port of a car. Credit: Ian Bush)


The device, called a "Snapshot," tracks your behavior behind the wheel and sends the data over a cellular signal to the insurer.  It also beeps when you do something boneheaded.

If you're a good driver, Progressive says, you could save money on your premiums.

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(Robin Harbage, Towers Watson. Photo provided)

"This is the first time insurers have the ability to go in and say, 'Oh, look, I know now because I can measure how you operate the vehicle that you're a driver who's unlikely to have an accident,' " says Robin Harbage (right), a director with the risk consulting firm Towers Watson.  "Probably 70 percent to 80 percent of the drivers are going to get a rate below what they're currently paying."

As for the rest of us...

(Snapshot beeps)

That's Snapshot telling me I slammed on the brake too hard.  It also watches the number of miles I drive, and what time of day I'm in the car -- points are docked if you're on the road between 12 midnight and 4am.

So far, I've scored a C+ -- alas, miles away from any potential savings.

Progressive says rates can't go up with Snapshot, only down.  And they're not the only company that offers a "usage-based" insurance option.  Harbage says it could, one day, be the norm.

"There are drivers who clearly do create the majority of accidents.  We can see those behaviors with these devices. Long-term, insurers will get to a point where they not only identify those behaviors but they begin coaching those drivers into how to improve their driving," Harbage says.

Even if you haven't installed a device like a Snapshot, most newer cars and trucks are equipped with Event Data Recorders, which track things like speed and seatbelt use in a crash.

Model year 2013 vehicles equipped with EDRs must adhere to federal standards issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2006, which -- among other things -- requires manufacturers to notify owners through the user manual to the presence of the EDR.

A bill passed by the US Senate in March and now up for consideration by the House would mandate black boxes in all cars by 2015.

"They do know an awful lot about us -- more than I'd imagine most Americans realize," says Kevin Woodson, an assistant professor of law at Drexel University's Earle Mack School of Law.

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(Kevin Woodson, Drexel Univ. Credit: Ian Bush)

Woodson (right) says that while privacy advocates worry about the potential for abuse, the US Supreme Court has been clear:

"The general understanding is that information you expose to the public -- activities and behavior that you do in public -- for example, by driving down a highway, the sense to the court is that you have relinquished any expectation of privacy over that activity. And whether the government is tracking you for a split second, for a day, or for a month, the formal legal argument is that you do not have a privacy expectation that is recognized by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution."

Woodson says a California court ruled that information held in the black boxes is the physical property of the automobile owner; therefore, authorities can't take it without your consent.

And in US v. Jones -- a case in which an accused drug dealer in Washington, DC protested the surreptitious installation by government agents of a GPS tracking device on his car -- the Supreme Court ruled that the suspect's rights were violated.

But Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, argued that the violation was the actual physical trespass on the man's property when agents installed the tracker.  Woodson calls this a "shallow victory" for many people -- and an opinion that makes privacy advocates very nervous:

"It left the door open for cases where the GPS is already inside the car when the person has purchased it or acquires possession of it.  There's no reason to believe that the holding in this case will offer any protections in those instances," Woodson notes.

For its part, Progressive says Snapshot doesn't have GPS in it, adding that none of the information it collects is shared unless it's to fight fraud, conduct research -- or in response to a subpoena.

In the case of the would-be mandated black boxes, insurance companies wouldn't be able to see the information they collect without your consent -- in most cases -- but a court order can put it in the hands of police.


Listen to Part 1...

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