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Controversial NY “Textalyzer” Law Presents Privacy Issues

social responsibility

Imagine you’ve just been in a car accident. You’re sore, disoriented, and it’s obvious your car’s totaled. Soon, law enforcement arrives. Three drivers were involved in the accident. One by one, the officer asks each of you to hand over your smart phones.

“We need to determine if anyone was texting prior to the accident,” he says. “Don’t worry, I’ll return your phones as soon as I have the report.”

You hesitate to comply, but the officer insists. “It’s the law in New York. If you refuse, your license could be suspended or revoked.”

The accident wasn’t your fault, and you weren’t texting prior to the accident. Still, there’s nothing left to do but wait as he takes your smart phone back to his car.

The Deadly Reality of Distracted Driving

This situation could be a reality in New York state in the near future. In an effort to combat distracted-driving accidents, lawmakers want to give police tools to enforce existing distracted-driving laws. Known as the “textalyzer law,” “any driver involved in a collision resulting in damage, injury or death to surrender to police any mobile device in their possession at or near the time of the collision.” (The text of the proposed law can be found here.)

Without a doubt, distracted driving is a huge problem. According to a recent article in Motortrend, citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“…more than 1,153 are injured in distracted driving accidents each day in the U.S. and nine people are killed. Based on those statistics, distracted driving accidents account for roughly 20 percent of all traffic incidents.”

Texting isn’t the only concern. Distracted drivers are also using social media, apps, and video chatting while behind the wheel. Much like positive efforts to curb drunk driving, New York lawmakers see a real opportunity here to save lives, heartache, and considerable property damage. But does their proposed method encroach on our right to privacy?

Privacy Concerns

While the intentions driving the textalyzer law are seemingly good, privacy advocates see profound problems with the proposed legislation. For one, scanning the device would be conducted without a warrant. Though Cellebrite, the company tapped to provide the technology, was confident the searches could be engineered in a way to protect the privacy of the drivers, others were uneasy with the proposal. Andrew Selbst, scholar with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told CBC Radio program The Current:

“One of problems with this is anyone who gets into accident with no evidence or even suspicion that they were actually texting and driving … will have to turn over their phone on penalty of losing their license. That’s just not how we do it.”

It would seem the law runs afoul of existing U.S. Supreme Court Rulings, notably the decision in 2014 that police can’t search a phone without a warrant. The same is true of drivers suspected to have caused a drunk driving collision. For police to administer a breathalyzer, a warrant is ordered based on sufficient evidence to suspect the driver was drunk.

Faulty legislation may not be the best solution to the problem of texting while driving. The unintended consequences of such a law open up troubling scenarios in which drivers may find their personal information abused. There may also be other ways to raise awareness and change our tendency towards dangerous behaviors. A NY Times article covering the proposed law recently highlighted the various social campaigns, such as the Partnership for Distraction-Free Driving.

Expanding the Conversation

A safer, civil society needs both responsible drivers and a right to privacy. The textalyzer law is a perfect example of a way we can engage in conversation about privacy issues. Discussing the issues around this proposed law can help us all take social responsibility for our privacy.

Consider and offer these questions to others for an open discussion:

1. What are your thoughts about the proposed law?

2. What are your beliefs on how government should regulate privacy and data security issues?

3. How important are these issues to you?

4. How satisfied are you with the way government is responding to privacy and data security issues?

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