Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Poor Disclosure

What is wrong with the media?  The Reuters headline is Carmakers must tell buyers about “black boxes” and begins by stating that the government is requiring that carmakers tell consumers that the cars they’re buying have “black boxes” installed in them which track driving information, such as “speed, braking, and other measurements”.  In the third paragraph, they mention that “privacy experts” are complaining that consumers aren’t being “fully protected”.  And not until the sixth paragraph are we told that carmakers have until September 1, 2010 to comply.  That’s four years from now.  And yet two-thirds of new cars already have these things in them, including every General Motors car (as I learned in the fifth paragraph).  So carmakers can continue selling cars with these things without telling anyone for four more years.

And lest you think the notification might be too burdensome to startup any sooner, in the ninth paragraph, we’re finally told what this notification consists of: A statement in the owner’s manual; something you’d only read after you bought the fucking car.  That’s like putting nutritional information on the inside of the box.  I had assumed that when the headline said “Carmakers must tell…” that this meant that the dealers would be telling people.  But no.  This important new feature is to be buried in the owner’s manual, where you’re unlikely to see it until after you’ve already bought the car.  

Now, I could see carmakers being concerned that some people might not want to buy cars with these things in them, and so they’d be a bit reluctant to tell people.  But isn’t that the right of the consumer?  If someone would object to buying something if they had more information, shouldn’t that be information that they be given?  Some people see seatbelts as being a gross intrusion on their privacy and rights; and seatbelts can’t testify against you in court.  I can only imagine how much they’ll love these new gadgets.

And call me crazy, but I’m fairly sure that car companies update their owner manuals every fucking year.  And yet they’re given four years to comply with this most basic of notifications??  Mind you, it’s not just the notification that is mandated within four years, but many other specifications.  But why couldn’t they change the notification to be within one year.  That’s not unreasonable.  Again, they update these things every year.  This isn’t difficult.  And really, is there any excuse for why this notification wasn’t devised before they started installing them?


And again, why is this buried in the article?  The headline and opening paragraph make it seem like the government is doing something positive.  But it’s not until the end of the article that we find out how weak these notifications are.  I mean, who the hell reads the owner’s manual?  And why couldn’t they mention that fact earlier in the article?  That’s one of the concerns that the “privacy experts” have.  They mentioned the concerns in the third paragraph, but wait until the ninth to even start mentioning any of these concerns.

And even then, it was written like this: “Privacy experts criticized the decision to use the owners' manual to notify consumers that the vehicle contains a recorder, arguing that many people do not look at it.”

That’s it.  That’s the first mention of how weak these notifications are, and it was in the fourth to the last paragraph.  It could easily have been written into the first paragraph.  Something like “…car makers must disclose in the owner’s manual…”  Or something like that.  I’m no journalist, but that didn’t seem difficult.  Or the second paragraph would also be perfectly acceptable.  But they keep using “tell consumers,” which sounds much more disclosatory than a statement in the owner’s manual; which again, won’t be read until after the car is purchased…assuming it’s read at all.

And the only other mention of the owner’s manual in the article comes from the NHTSA spokesman who tells us that the owner’s manual is suitable for the notification.  Well great.  I’m glad he settled that for us.  He also goes on to say that “most privacy concerns should be addressed by the courts and Congress, not by NHTSA.”  

And, no.  I don’t think so.  If the NHTSA can make regulations that carmakers do this, we really need a decision on everything before we start installing them.  As it is, a majority of new cars already have these things, and yet nobody needs to know about them.  And if the NHTSA can mandate that this be in the owner’s manual, then they could surely mandate that dealers actually tell people about it.  

Mind you, I wouldn’t really have a problem with having one of these in my car, but I certainly understand why some people might.  And who’s really to say that future governments won’t start authorizing police to check people’s “black boxes” to see if they’ve been speeding?  It would really make sense.  Rather than using radar guns, a cop could pull you over and have your speeds zapped over to his handheld computer, and write you a ticket based upon that.  Heck, they could even make the things submit their results electronically to the police on a regular basis, or even submit them whenever you’ve been speeding.  You would just receive a ticket in the mail, like they do for those speed camaras.  And it wouldn’t be too much more difficult to use them to see if you ran a stop sign or red light.  

The NHTSA spokesman says that the information is considered private property, but so is your DNA, and police can already get subpoenas for that.  It seems like if your computer has knowledge that you committed a crime, then that could justify the invasion of privacy.  And even if that’s not the plan now, it’d be absurd to suggest it couldn’t happen.  

But never fear.  They’re leaving privacy issues for the courts and Congress to decide at some future date.  Meanwhile, two-thirds of new vehicles already have these things in them.

1 comment:

trilobite said...

Just goes to show that our current driving laws are dumb. I wouldn't like having a police recording device stuck on my spedometer, but I could see the argument that if I'm using the public roads, the public gets to monitor my speed. Also, we could free up a lot of cops for real work if we stopped this silly "it's only speeding if they catch me" game we all play. The issue for me is, why are the speed limits so unrealistic?

I doubt that more than 10% of drivers customarily travel at or below the speed limit. And I doubt that more than 10% or so of drivers should be forced to drive that slowly. How about this: they can check my speed all they want, if, based on the numbers of years I have been driving and my lack of accidents, I get to drive at normal road speeds? The people who just got their licenses or had accidents in the last two years, or multiple accidents, can get junior licenses and stay in the right lane. And we can put a little barcode on my car that tells the radar gun that I have a "high-speed license," so the cops don't need to worry about pulling me over. OK?