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All cars may soon get eyes

Published May 4, 2013

Consider the following scenarios:

A bomb goes off in a public place and the movements of culprits before, during and after the blast are witnessed by scores of cameras in vehicles parked and passing by.

There’s a car accident. It’s almost impossible for the hit-and-run driver to get away unseen as autos heading in all directions capture the collision and a car’s departure on video, revealing its model, colour and license plate

There’s no hiding if all vehicles have built-in eyes perpetually gazing and recording in a continuous loop, as is happening more and more these days.

Video cameras are now so common and inexpensive that laptops, smartphones and other devices have them, as do ATMs, shops, parking lots, public transit systems and downtown street corners.

For $300, consumers can buy cameras to record video and audio in and outside vehicles, provide GPS locations and record G-force changes and speeds.

Increased hard drive capacity in smaller formats and at lower cost have made it affordable for automakers to factory install memory in vehicle media and entertainment systems.

Nearly all North American cars and trucks have had built-in event data recorders (EDR) since the mid 1990s just as flight data recorders (FDR), or “black boxes”, in commercial aircraft have for decades, logging factors from the car’s speed and direction to seatbelt use in the seconds before airbags deploy.

With today’s technology, video and audio data could be included — but doing it is restricted for a variety of reasons, civil and legal.

Orwellian to those who think it would infringe on people’s right to privacy if they were constantly being monitored in public, but there’s no doubt victims would have welcomed the scrutiny if it spared them pain and loss.

“As a police organization wanting to protect citizens from people who would do them harm, I can see the value of that,” said Sgt. Pierre Chamberland, media relations co-ordinator with the OPP.

“Would it be an advantage to police investigations? Absolutely. Would it present new challenges? Absolutely. Would we cope with those challenges in time? Absolutely.”

Chamberland points out how useful dash video cams are for police, as are license recognition cameras that identify stolen vehicles and invalid plates saving dispatchers and officers the time it takes to manually search data bases.

Like it or not the technology’s here and car cameras will be standard equipment in vehicles of the future.

“GM has integrated cameras into many safety innovations such as backup cameras and forward looking cameras into our vehicles to provide additional visibility and control,” said Faye Roberts, communications director with General Motors of Canada.

“However, video recording has not been utilized. While we don’t have any news about the integration of video cameras at this time, GM is always working on technological innovations that will improve our customers’ driving experiences.”

So for now the only mobile cams recording what happens on the road are in police cruisers, public transit vehicles and those owned by private citizens and businesses.

“When one or two individuals go out and buy (car) cameras that’s not going to have a societal impact, but when we’re talking about standardized surveillance technology in cars used by millions and millions of people we’re talking about a wider impact,” said Abby Deshman, public safety program director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

“I think we have to be extremely wary of any proposals to widely equip surveillance technology into everyday objects and components in our lives.”

She said studies have shown surveillance cameras don’t have much effect on overall crime rates and people doing wrong don’t consider the consequences. Deshman wonders if inescapable surveillance actually makes us safer.

“There are a lot of really basic questions we need to ask. Whether we want this technology, what it would be used for, who would have access to it and what the actual impact would be. Right now we don’t live in a world where every action we take in public is being recorded,” Deshman said.

“People who have been subject to intense surveillance do sense a loss of freedom. They do not feel as able to go where they want to and perfectly legal behaviour can become suspicious once you’re watched 24/7.”

Airplane flight recorders don’t compromise privacy as they are only accessed in the event of an emergency but aftermarket dash cam data can be replayed, copied and uploaded. They capture people’s actions, identities, locations, time and date and are controlled by the owner.

With a search warrant authorities can seize the privately-owned video data when necessary.

In some U.S. states EDR data is the property of car owners but it belongs to automakers in Canada, as stated in vehicle owner manuals.

“Technically the device belongs to the vehicle. The software and data recorded theoretically belongs to the (auto) manufacturer, but the operator creates the event,” said Const. Clint Stibbe of the Toronto Police Traffic Services unit.

Police have a crash data retrieval tool (CDR) used to access black box information in serious accident investigations. There is an understanding between car makers and law enforcement about retrieving the details investigators require.

EDRs record in a continuous loop, backing up a few seconds prior to an airbag deployment event, while police cruiser cams go back 30 seconds.

“I see you go through a stop sign (without stopping) and I hit the button on the recorder, or turn on the lights or siren, and the camera records before I engaged it. No matter what you do your start time is 30 seconds earlier,” he said.

A collision will also activate the camera, which can record about 17 hours of video.

“That’s more than enough to cover the 10 hour shift and as we come into (range of) the station everything is wirelessly downloaded from the car,” he said.

In the event of a terrorist attack a challenge investigators would face is the amount of staff needed to gather, process and document all the camera data.

“We adapt to new trends. For example, look at the volume of information the computer has helped us to scan compared to what it used to take doing it manually, like the license recognition technology,” Chamberland said.

“We would never act on video evidence alone because it is only one piece of the puzzle or only one angle of view, but its obviously one of the tools that would be useful to us. We’re not going to make a case for (auto) manufacturers, but we would use the technology as any other organization or business does. You have to keep in touch with all new development,” he added.

The vast amount of dash cam video online from around the globe shows just how popular the devices have become.

“It’s our fastest growing market,” said Pat Palmer, president of Spy Chest, a U.S. firm marketing the $300 DR 200 Black Box Car Camera, which records interior and exterior views and has a GPS data logger and G-force sensor.

Kia and Hyundai have inquired about Spy Chest’s sales figures and demographics.

“We sell in 35 countries where they’re used by parents concerned about young drivers, small police departments that don’t have big budgets, ambulance firms, taxi drivers, and even for security in Iraq,” Palmer said, adding: “Installing one in my own car has made me a safer driver because I know I’m also being monitored.”

Automakers have taken notice of the boom in aftermarket dash camera use and although they haven’t incorporated video into EDRs or added recorders to their built-in rear and front view cameras or console display screens, it only seems logical that’s the next step.

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