Privacy concerns will hamper the development of a Canadian “textalyzer” that shows police if a driver’s cellphone was recently in use, says Windsor personal injury lawyer Gino Paciocco.
NPR reports that police in several U.S. states, including New York, want to put the tool into action in an effort to crack down on the increasingly prevalent problem of motorists who text while driving.
Modelled on the breathalyzer for alcohol testing, the machine works by plugging into a phone, and extracting data to put a finger on exactly when and how it was being used at the time the owner was driving.
However, Paciocco, a founding partner of Paciocco & Mellow, tells us that the idea strikes the wrong balance between public safety and personal privacy rights.
“If you allow police to go ahead and conduct these tests whenever they want, it’s going to be a huge invasion of privacy that I don’t think people will put up with,” he says. “With the advance of technology, there is so much information your phone can collect. You could tell if someone’s speeding, where they’ve been. Some might even know your blood pressure and how much sleep you had the night before.”
Depending on how well the machine could restrict officers’ access to data on the phone, it could also raise issues for doctors and lawyers who use their devices for work purposes, considering their duties of confidentiality to patients and clients, Paciocco says.
According to NPR, police officers attach a cord to connect the textalyzer to the phone. Within two minutes, it can bring up a summary of the all the apps that were open and in use in the recent past, including screen taps and swipes.
Paciocco says the textalyzer reminds him of photo radar, another measure hailed by some as a solution to a road safety problem.
“It may have been good to reduce speeding, but there was a public outcry about privacy that caused it to be done away with,” he says.
If police have a reason to suspect that a particular driver’s texting caused an accident, then they have other means to get the same information that an on-the-spot textalyzer would provide, Paciocco says.
“They can go and get a search warrant through the courts to collect that evidence from the phone company,” he says. “I don’t see the urgency that would justify giving police officers the absolute right to go into your device with complete discretion.”
While he acknowledges that texting and driving is a practice that appears to be on the rise, Paciocco says there are more effective ways to challenge that problem than a textalyzer.
“You could mandate some sort of lock on the phone that disables it while the car is in motion. If drivers are unable to text with their cellphones, then that would prevent accidents and make everyone much safer,” he says. “But even that would have its own issues, and you would need a way to distinguish between drivers and passengers.”