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“Textalysers” coming soon?

Policeman stops woman for texting but she is applying her make up
Targeting distracted drivers
I already have a great deal of experience dealing with breathalysers, maybe I’ll soon need to expand into “textalysers” if this plan from America takes off.

New York law makers are looking to introduce “Evan’s Law” that would allow police to use devices at the roadside to see whether drivers have been texting while driving.  The name comes from Evan Lieberman who was killed in a car crash when Michael Fiddle claimed he fell asleep while driving – in the UK Fiddle would likely have been guilty of causing death by dangerous driving if he made an admission like that but in New York it seems that wasn’t enough to bring a charge against him as a grand jury refused to indict him.  The parents of Mr Lieberman felt there was more to the story than Mr Fiddle falling asleep and were able to force the release of Mr Fiddle’s telephone records, which showed he had been texting sometime earlier, although a judge said that had not been a factor in the crash.

The textalyser aims to give police the ability to immediately check whether a driver has been using their telephone while driving.  If that were your phone you may well be concerned about police officers having access to the private data on your phone, such as pictures, message contents and so on.  Presumably, to have any real use the device would have to access all apps capable of acting as a messaging service not just the standard text messaging app.  That would mean it accessing your Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Tinder, Instagram and so on accounts – if it can’t do that then you have to wonder what the point of the device is.  If it can do that then you should be worried about police officers having unrestricted access to all your communications on demand because in New York, the proposed law will mean that refusing to hand over your phone is an automatic one-year driving disqualification!

Supporters of Evan’s Law say that the devices will not reveal any personal information, such as the content of text messages or calls but that appears to be completely untrue with the manufacturer of this device saying it allows access to data such as, “call logs, contacts, calendar, text messages, media files and more”.  In the device brochure, the manufacturer makes clear that in addition they will allow police complete access to “app data, chats, passwords” and for all that data to be saved to the police’s device and shared with others by the police.

Jacy Good is one of the USA’s most vocal campaigners against distracted driving and said that, "[i]t is critically important that distracted driving laws [such as mobile phone use] are as strictly enforced as drink driving laws have become".

The problem with treating mobile phone use like drink driving is that the two things are nothing alike.  A person accused of drink driving will sober up relatively quickly but somebody accused of causing a fatal accident while texting on their phone can never un-send that text nor delete their mobile phone operators record of the message, so you have to wonder why police need immediate access to suspects phones at the side of the road.

These devices already exist and the manufacturer claims to have “more than 30,000 units deployed across 100 countries.”  They appear to be designed to allow police to quickly find information relevant to missing people or make quick connexions between gang members – given the brochure mentions that their device is, “… the primary choice for forensic specialists in… military [and] intelligence…” you might conclude that it’s also intended as a speedy covert data collection device for quickly and quietly taking all data from a phone without the owner being aware.

If they are used in motoring cases in the USA you can bet that they’ll make their way to the UK for deployment against British drivers.  At that point, we need to ask ourselves whether completely surrendering our right to privacy from government agencies such as the police is something we really want to be doing.  Ask yourself this, if the government gave the police the right to enter your home and demand all data from your home computer would you think that was acceptable?  When mobile phones hold the same (if not more) personal data about us, should we let police have access to that same data just because we happen to be driving a car rather than sitting in a sofa?

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