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Car Black Boxes

Monday, December 6, 1999 at 10:43 AM

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While shopping for groceries or gifts, consumers want the best deal for their dollars. Sometimes, that deal will be exchanged for anything from home and work phone numbers to social security numbers. Privacy advocates say this volunteering of information is dangerous. Whether customers know about it or not, they say it's becoming common practice. 90.3 WCPN's Yolanda Perdomo reports.

This is the On Guard response system, may I have your name and code word please? ‘Thank you, this is Byron Alexa, code word New York.’

Yolanda Perdomo- In a mini van outside a northeastern Cleveland suburb, Byron Alexa, a technician for Progressive Insurance, presses a small button under the steering wheel to get some help.

Thank you Mr. Alexa. This is Janet. We did receive a panic activation in the vehicle. Is everything all right in the vehicle? ‘Everything is fine.’ Is there anything else we can do? ‘No, everything is fine....the first street to your right is going to be Alpha Drive, and that will be at the 600 block’

The operator in Texas is talking through a tiny speaker in the car installed by Mayfield-based Progressive Insurance. Aside from an anti-theft and navigation monitoring program, it also provides the Autograph system, which tracks the usage of a vehicle. Progressive says it can save customers up to 25% on their annual insurance based on how much they use their car. There’s an installation fee, and clients pay $15 a month to have it in their cars. Byron Alexa of Progressive says information gathered about the motorist would be private.

Byron Alexa- We are not going to misuse this data in anyway against their wishes. So we’re not going to sell them an insurance policy for Autograph without them going through that process to protect their own rights.

YP- Progressive, the country’s 5th largest car insurer, has the option of using a patent to track more than just where the driver goes. It would reveal if you’re getting a ticket, speeding, tailgating, using turn signals - even what radio station you listen to. Progressive says they have no immediate plans to use this technology, but Evan Hendricks says it’s setting a dangerous precedent. He’s the editor and publisher of Privacy Times.

Evan Hendricks- People have to think hard when they have a relatively anonymous activity like driving and then you convert it into a monitored activity as this system would allow. Because once information is stored, then its often used for other purposes. Some of which you never would imagine.

YP- For example, it could wind up in the courts, says Lewis Katz, a John C. Hutchins Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University.

Lewis Katz- If there is a personal injury or automobile accident case, this would be extremely relevant to the parties to any litigation. And even though the company may promise not to sell that information, it would still be subject to subpoena by either party in the civil action, and possibly in a criminal case against the driver uninsured for reckless driving or something of that nature.

YP- Katz says the company has a valid purpose for wanting to track its motorists to set rates. And like everything from the Internet, to shopper’s club cards, and credit cards, he says a car tracking device is nothing new in terms of gathering what could be considered private information.

LK- I think that one of the hallmarks of the American society was the right to be left alone. Not only by government, but also by private industry. And I think we have willingly or subconsciously surrendered that right almost totally over the past 3 decades.

We do so in return for the incentive of greater savings or we do so unconsciously when companies we deal with trade that information to other companies. And then we’re inundated with commercial advertisements with other products. I think there is the rub in this type of case.

YP- For Gus Kapriva, Autograph works just fine. He’s an engineering manager in Austin, Texas. Right now, Texas is the only state where the system is used. Kapriva is one of more than 900 volunteer clients who have been testing the Autograph for over a year. Kapriva says he’s a happy customer, estimating about $400 in savings on four of his vehicles with the Autograph system. But he admits he would draw the line at someone knowing everything about his driving habits.

Gus Kapriva- No, I would consider that a little too much data (YP: Why?) Because sometimes I tend to drive fast, especially in my sports car, and I would not like that data getting out.

YP- Progressive says they’ve done limited marketing of the system. They credit many referrals from people pleased with the tracking device in Texas. But there is no target date to bring the technology to motorists in the rest of the country. For Infohio, I’m Yolanda Perdomo in Cleveland.

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