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New York orders review of controversial 'Textalyzer' device

The technology would allow police officers to review recent smartphone activity to see if a driver involved in an accident had been texting while driving.

Ryan Johnston
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Ryan Johnston Editorial Intern

Ryan Johnston is an editorial intern for Scoop News Group. Johnston contributes content to all SNG publications.

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New York could be the first state to adopt the latest solution to sniffing out distracted driving, but not without some controversy.

On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee to look into the technology behind a new device called a "Textalyzer" that shows whether a driver involved in a recent crash was texting while driving. The committee is also being asked to look at questions being raised around potential civil liberties violations surrounding the technology. The review comes as evidence mounts around the country supporting the idea that texting while driving is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. 

The premise behind the device is relatively simple — once plugged into a cellular device for about a minute, an officer can obtain the data about the most recently used apps, functions or user interactions with the phone, and thus secure evidence of distracted driving if the phone was being used while the driver was operating the vehicle. The New York Civil Liberties Union, in a statement released in 2016 condemning a bill that would legalize the technology, described a process by which “an officer would connect a person's phone to their laptop or other device and detect only the operating system logs, which would provide information about touchscreen use and whether someone was typing at the time of a crash.”

New York is one 15 states with a ban on all hand-held cell phone use while driving and one of 47 with a ban on texting while driving. The state doled out 1.2 million tickets for cellphone violations between 2011 and 2015, according to the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research, in addition to raising the severity of the infraction in 2013. During that time, cellphone-related crashes resulted in 2,784 injuries and twelve deaths on New York roads.

Gov. Cuomo has seen enough.

"Despite laws to ban cellphone use while driving, some motorists still continue to insist on texting behind the wheel — placing themselves and others at substantial risk," Cuomo said in a statement. "This review will examine the effectiveness of using this new emerging technology to crack down on this reckless behavior and thoroughly evaluate its implications to ensure we protect the safety and privacy of New Yorkers."

Pocket privacy

According to Cellebrite, the Israeli-based manufacturer, the device would only capture activity, not download any personal information. 

“Nothing was actually collected from the phone,” said Lee Papathanasiou, an engineer for Cellebrite, during a demonstration of the device at a Distracted Driving Lobby Day event in April. “There’s no data, really. It's just reading metadata from the OS, so there’s nothing being exposed that would raise privacy issues.”

Papathanasiou said that the technology will be developed separately from the company's other endeavors, which include data-extracting smartphone hacking tools. Papathanasiou added that concerns surrounding the device’s ability to distinguish between hands-free activity, which is legal in New York, and illegal hands-on usage will be addressed with further research and development.

The request for review of the device comes more than a year after the introduction of a bill that would have legalized the technology and granted police the power to suspend the license of a driver who refuses to submit their phone for testing. Introduced in January 2016 by State Rep. Terrence Murphy, a Republican, the bill currently sits with the Finance Committee. Now, more than a year later, Cuomo’s Traffic Safety Committee will be reviewing the constitutionality of the technology and other areas where similar technology has been used.

Regardless of the committee’s findings, the technology is, reportedly, far from complete and Cellebrite is hesitant to complete development without legal support. It’s also unclear how government would handle a situation in which a passenger interacts with the driver’s phone while the driver is focused on the road. The company’s caution is easily understood — the product has received unrelenting backlash from civil liberties groups and privacy advocates who claim the product could easily exploit private citizens’ information and rights.

The NYCLU condemned the bill in 2016: “There is no question ... that this proposed law would authorize police to obtain sensitive personal information in violation of the constitutional protections against search and seizure.”

Currently, New York police officers require a warrant to obtain phone records, even after an arrest.  

After Gov. Cuomo’s announcement on Wednesday, NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman responded.

“We are interested to learn what the committee finds, but it won’t change the fact that police should get a warrant before they get access to our phones. After all, a cell phone is your private life in your pocket.”

-In this Story-

States, New York, State & Local News, Innovation, Privacy, Public Safety, Law Enforcement, Tech News, Mobility, NYCLU, Andrew Cuomo, Textalyzer

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