By Bob Weaver

Most USA car owners are unaware their car has a "black box" (Event Data Recorder) that is really silver. Thirty million autos have them installed.

The computer records the driver-car behavior five seconds before a crash.

A recent crash that killed both drivers, including a Smithville man, is being studied by police using the box.

It appears auto makers and the government have played-down the "news" about the technology, which has been in some vehicles for several years.

Automakers say the devices give them better information about car safety and police have been using black box information to prosecute drivers.

The information is now finding its way into civil suits, and it surely won't be long before insurance companies will try to use the information to insure the safest, most accident free drivers.

Civil liberties groups and other critics maintain the boxes are an erosion of personal privacy, installed without the knowledge or consent of the owner.

The box determines the force of a collision, the speed at which the car was traveling, whether the brakes were applied, and how the airbag fared. The unit also tracks engine speed, the angle of the steering wheel, whether or not the seatbelt was worn, and the position of the accelerator pedal.

Exactly who will have access to the data besides the auto company, police and lawyers is unclear.

"The biggest problem is that it appears these devices were installed without the consumer's consent," said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Clearly, the information will quickly get out of the control of the auto owner," he added.

A spokesman for the National Motorists Association in Madison, Wisconsin said "The information can be used against you, and there's no sort of regulation about who owns that information."

Joe Osterman, director of the Office of Highway Safety at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washington, says the boxes will help law enforcement to determine fault.

The NTSB proposes that the recorders become standard equipment starting in 2009 models, retain the last eight seconds of data before a crash, and include added data from electronic stability control and anti-lock braking systems.

"This is another example of where technology has outstripped the law and certain assumptions of how the world works," says Jay Stanley, director of communications for the Technology and Liberty Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

Privacy experts are worried about how the black box information could be used, as with insurance concerns.

"The prospect that we're all under constant scrutiny has social effects and legal effects that we haven't even contemplated," said Stephen Keating of the Privacy Foundation at the University of Denver.

Then comes the Real ID Card (Read Herald story)

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