Bob Barr

A New York Times article on consumer privacy detailed technology available in the new Chevrolet Corvette. The story highlighted the whiz-bang technology that can visually record the driver’s point-of-view, in addition to recording noises or conversations taking place inside the car. Chevy claims this information, recorded digitally by a device inside the glove box, belongs to the consumer -- ostensibly designed to improve a driver’s performance driving.

As for transparency, the fact is that most vehicle data collection techniques are mentioned only in passing by manufacturers somewhere in the owner’s manual (if at all). Most consumers become aware this type of information has been or is being collected on them only when it appears as evidence in a civil or criminal proceeding against them.

“The privacy and liability issues associated with the [data recorders] are as real as with any archived data that can be used by or against individuals,” William Kohler, co-chair of law firm Clark Hill’s Automotive and Manufacturing Practice Group, told the New York Times.

Corporations are able to gather such troves of data largely because they are not bound by the same constitutionally-imposed limits on searches and seizures that limit government collection of information -- or which are supposed to limit government. Making the problem worse has been the unwillingness of the Congress in recent years to enact meaningful safeguards for the privacy of vehicle owners and drivers.

Under current law, there is little to stop corporations from turning over consumer information gleaned from vehicle black boxes to government agencies. In essence, the government can use third-parties corporations, like Ford, TomTom or Progressive, to collect vehicle data without restraint, then ask for or demand the data it wants. There does not have to be an imminent need for the data (you know, just in case) -- a key requirement for constitutionally-valid searches under the 4th Amendment.

Thankfully, consumer backlash against Verizon, Google, and other tech companies for their cooperation with NSA’s now publicly-known electronic snooping, suggests the public does have a threshold for how cozy private companies should be allowed to get with Uncle Sam. It remains to be seen, however, whether they actually will demand action to protect against the dangers posed their basic freedom, by such unfettered collection of data about what they do when they get behind the wheel of their car or pick-up truck.

Bob Barr

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 -2003 and as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986-1990.