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Use of Airbag Module Recorder in Cars Raises Privacy, Legal Issues

Big Brother is watching. That famous phrase from literature carries the warning that the authorities may be keeping a curious eye on our activities. But who knew Big Brother was riding along in our cars?

Many people have heard of flight data recorders, the so-called "black boxes" that often capture the final moments before an aircraft crash. The devices record important data that can help investigators find the causes of such incidents.

Far fewer have heard of the airbag module (ABM) found in millions of cars and trucks manufactured since the 1990s by General Motors and Ford. The module is a computer about the size of a pack of cigarettes. Mike Vaughn, public affairs manager for Ford Global Technology, explains its reason for being.

"The basic purpose of these modules is to operate the restraint system in the vehicle. That's deployment of the air bags and also to make sure the seat belts are operating properly," he said. "And also in the event of a crash, to gauge whether the system as a whole operated properly - whether or not the airbags deployed, if they did not deploy, whether they should have deployed due to the rate of deceleration of the vehicle."

The editor in chief of Car & Driver Magazine, Czaba Csere, explains why the seat belt sensor is part of the module. "In a certain relatively low-speed crash, say a 12-mile-per-hour crash, if your seat belt is on, the system may decide not to fire the airbag because you don't need the extra supplementary assistance of the airbag to cushion you," he said. "But if you haven't fastened your seat belt, well, you could hit the dash pretty hard at 12 miles an hour, so it will fire the bag."

Very clever, you say, a nice use of technology for safety's sake. We asked Ford's Mike Vaughn whether most Ford owners are aware that the modules are there in their car or truck. He said he believes they are. "But what some owners may not know is that this system has a small recording capability in it which is not meant to judge or gauge what the driver is doing so much as to gauge the operation of the restraint system," he said.

It's that recording capability that has become a mounting concern, says Car & Driver's Csaba Csere. "I think the real issue is that most people are not aware that their car can serve as a witness for the prosecution," he said.

In a growing number of court cases, data downloaded from an airbag module has been used to help convict a motorist. And that has civil libertarians worried.

"If we're going to decide as a society that we're going to eliminate this particular area of privacy, in other words detailed performance information about a car, then people need to know it," said Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union. "They need to be very clear that that kind of information is being recorded. And there needs to be some sort of public openness and knowledge about exactly what these computers are recording."