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Big brother cometh…

Posted by Richard Sunday, February 27, 2005 ,

In the Sunday Times today is a story that has being doing the rounds, this one headed: "Europe wants a black-box speed spy in every car".

According to The Times, "black box recorders" could be installed in all new cars under an EU ruling. The "aircraft-style equipment" would also act as a tracker, using global positioning satellites to record the location and route of a vehicle and to tell how fast a driver is going and whether seatbelts are being worn.

Typically, this is being presented as a safety measures, the Times also reporting that "data recovered from the boxes could give investigators important clues on how accidents are caused". We are told that the EU commission has asked the police forces of member states to look at whether the technology could improve road safety.

Then, if as expected, the police give their backing, manufacturers would be required to install black boxes in all new cars by 2009.

All very nicey-nicey this is, and you can bet the police – or more particularly the "road safety" partnerships – will be highly enthusiastic. As the technology allows speed to be monitored, and is linked with positioning data, the facility will exist to issue speed tickets from information generated by the car electronics, without any external apparatus such as speed cameras.

Furthermore, there have been some suggestions that the system could be linked to in-car computer diagnostic systems which already exist in many cars, to monitor exhaust emissions, with penalty tickets being issued automatically to drivers of cars which fail to meet emission standards – even though they may be unaware of the problem.

Few people are aware of quite how far this technology has already developed, and quite how enthusiastic the regulators are about its applications.

Some indication can be gained from the EU commission site on “Intelligent transport systems”, where ideas such as "electronic fee charging" are rehearsed.

Furthermore, since much of this technology relies on satellite positioning data, this the use of such systems in the regulatory context has the potential to provide a considerable revenue stream, underwriting the EU’s Galileo project, with otherwise is difficult to justify financially (other than through the spin-off in arms sales).

This is not only an EU problem as the National Transportation Safety Board in America is also highly enthusiastic about such systems, all of which goes to show that the bureaucracies of the world have a great deal in common.

Unsurprisingly, British motoring groups fear the technology could be used by government to introduce a national congestion charge or to keep tabs on people’s movements and therein lies the greatest danger.

Give governments power (any governments) and it is only a matter of time before they abuse it. Here technology is creating a worrisome scenario where, in the future, every time you climb in your car, "big brother" will be looking over your shoulder.