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Civil liberty concerns as Congress readies alcohol-detection mandate

The U.S. Senate has already put its stamp of approval on each of the 2,700 pages that comprise the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The House of Representatives is widely expected to approve the $1 trillion measure and send it to the president, who has said he will sign it.

One of the provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will require automakers to install technology in every vehicle to prevent drunk driving.

Background detection

The still-in-development technology will include a passive alcohol-detection system that will be either breath-based or touch-based. The passive system will take readings on its own and will not need drivers to perform tasks such as blowing into a sensor, as Breathalyzers require.

If the system detects an impermissible amount of alcohol, it will disable the vehicle, not allowing it to be driven. The legal threshold in California is a BAC (blood alcohol content) of .08 percent. If you are stopped by a law enforcement officer in California and tested with a BAC at or above .08 percent, you will be arrested for DUI (driving under the influence).

Rapid precision and peace of mind?

The “novel technology” will conduct its measurements “very rapidly with high precision and accuracy,” said Robert Strassburger, head of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, an organization that includes Ford, GM, Chrysler, Toyota, Volkswagen and Honda.

He said the system will give drivers “peace of mind that you yourself are good to go.”

Arrival date

According to a Market Watch article, the systems will be installed in every new vehicle, beginning in 2024.

Not everyone is thrilled by the prospect of an alcohol-detection mandate, however.

Inadequate safeguards

A spokesperson for the Center for Democracy & Technology says the auto industry’s protections for personal information are inadequate.

“Industry best practices alone — it’s usually not a reliable or foolproof way of really protecting user privacy, because (automakers) have their particular interests, and sometimes may not appreciate all the concerns.”

One way to resolve concerns would be to configure the alcohol-detection systems to simply render vehicles inoperable without collecting or disseminating data about the driver and/or owner of the vehicle.

Driver surveillance

Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Lee Tien said there will be pressure put on automakers to share or sell information with government and companies from a “system of technology that is basically driving surveillance.”

Tien said government and private companies “have aligned interests and they’re kind of not aligned with consumers.”

The American Highway Users Alliance said in a letter to lawmakers that it’s concerned about encroachment on civil liberties, as well as problems with false positives in which the alcohol-detection system wrongly determines that a driver’s BAC exceeds the limit.

First protection, then installation

The group said it’s “extremely important that a technology designed to control human behavior not be imposed before it is clear that civil liberties are protected.”

Rather than taking a proactive approach to protect civil liberties, it appears that lawmakers are waiting for auto manufacturers to finish developing the detection systems before privacy issues are addressed.

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