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Foss: Textalyzer proposal raises red flags

Foss: Textalyzer proposal raises red flags

There has to be better way to address it
Foss: Textalyzer proposal raises red flags
Photographer: Shutterstock

A Breathalyzer for distracted drivers.

I have to admit, it sounds like a great idea.

Who could possibly take issue with a technology that enables law enforcement to determine whether a driver was using his or her phone at the time of an accident? Everybody knows that texting while driving is dangerous. Why not make it easier for cops to crack down on drivers who insist on engaging in this risky activity?

This seems to be the general attitude underpinning the campaign to promote the use of what remains an emerging and unproven technology.

A bill under consideration in New York would allow the police to scan drivers' cellphones to determine whether they were in use during those crucial moments before an accident.

The scan would take place at the scene of an accident, using a device that attaches to the phone, according to a National Public Radio article. Known as a textalyzer, it would display a summary of what apps were open, as well as screen taps and swipes.

Car accidents are on the rise, and distracted driving is a big part of the reason why.

Politicians want to address the problem, which is understandable, and they believe the textalyzer will do something our existing laws and procedures cannot.

I say believe because we really don't know what the textalyzer would do. It isn't in use anywhere, and an engineer who showed off the device at the state Capitol last week acknowledged that the technology still isn't fully developed.

There's a big difference between demonstrating a technology in front of a friendly audience and using it in the field in tense and unpredictable situations. I would be wary of approving the textalyzer for law enforcement use until we have more information about how it actually works in the real world.

Which brings us to privacy.

Textalyzer proponents say the technology won't violate people's rights, but we don't have enough information about how the device works and how it will be used in practice to know whether this is true.

If there's one thing we've learned over the past decade, it's that technologies that give people access to our personal information will be misused and abused, and our phones contain a lot of personal information.

In fact, there's good reason to believe the Textalyzer might not pass Constitutional muster.

In 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that police cannot search suspects' phones without a search warrant -- a major victory for privacy rights in the digital age.

Obtaining a search warrant to look at a suspect's phone might sound like a cumbersome legal requirement, but it's exercised all the time. The police can access your phone records, so long as they have probable cause.

I don't like to see my fellow drivers using their phones, but I don't like the idea of subjecting everyone involved in a car accident to an invasive new technology, either.

The rise in distracted driving is a concern, but there's got to be a better way to address it.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. Her blog is at https://dailygazette.com/blogs/ thinking-it-through.

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