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California driving privacy law { September 23 2003 }

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September 23, 2003
Privacy Law in California Shields Drivers

WASHINGTON, Sept. 22 California today adopted the nation's first law meant to protect the privacy of drivers whose cars are equipped with "black boxes," or data recorders that can be used to gather vital information on how a vehicle is being driven in the last seconds before a crash.

Gov. Gray Davis signed the law, which takes effect on July 1, requiring carmakers to disclose the existence of such devices and forbidding access to the data without either a court order or the owner's permission, unless it is for a safety study in which the information cannot be traced back to the car.

More than 25 million cars and trucks have the boxes that measure speed, air-bag deployment and the use of brakes, seat belts and turn signals. But California's privacy law is the first of its kind, says Thomas M. Kowalick, co-chairman of a committee convened by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to set standards for the boxes. Most of the recorders are on General Motors vehicles, but Ford and others have deployed some. Other manufacturers have plans to do the same.

The police in South Dakota sought information from such a recorder to determine whether Bill Janklow, a member of the House of Representatives and a former governor of the state, had run a stop sign and was speeding on Aug. 16 when he hit and killed a motorcycle rider near Flandreau. But Maj. James Carpenter of the South Dakota Highway Patrol said that because the car was not a recent model it was a 1995 Cadillac it had limited information.

The California bill was introduced by Tim Leslie, a Republican assemblyman, who contended that the devices were installed without the owner's knowledge or consent and that the information they gathered should be subject to the same legal protections as provided by the Fourth Amendment for other kinds of private information. He compared it to the process for getting permission to tap a telephone.

Mr. Leslie's legislative director, Kevin O'Neill, said in a telephone interview that in the case of a crash that resulted in civil litigation or criminal prosecution, the data would be obtainable by court order. But the information should be protected by a process, Mr. O'Neill said.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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