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Is spying on teenage drivers an invasion of privacy or a parent’s right?

Feb 02, 20117 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

DriveCam executive defends American Family Insurance's Teen Driver surveillance technology and answers critics charges that captured footage violates privacy.

Teenage drivers crash nine times more often than adults. Teens drive more safely when parents are riding in the car with them, but parents can’t always ride with them. So some turn to technology to capture audio and video of teenage drivers in an effort to make them feel watched, as if their parents were there.

Although American Family Insurance has offered theTeen Safe Driver Program for years, this recent commercial caught my eye. Two video cameras with audio are installed on the rearview mirrors, recording footage of the driver and of the driver’s view of the road ahead. When triggered by erratic driving, 20 seconds of video are sent to a safety analyst at DriveCam who reviews it and writes a critique. If the video is especially disturbing, mom and dad are sent an email alert. The videos are posted online where parents can login and view them. Parents are to “coach” their teen on better driving habits. American Family reports, “Parents also receive a weekly driver report card showing their teen’s performance compared to their peers.”


But, as a privacy advocate the video raised a lot of questions. So I contacted Rusty Weiss, Director of DriveCam and asked him.

Some in the industry are downplaying the privacy problems that these surveillance cameras pose. Daniel McGehee, director of the Human Factors and Vehicle Safety Research program at the University of Iowa, told The Kansas City Star, “There’s that ‘Big Brother’ sort of stereotype associated with this system” since the camera is always on.” He added that teenagers may become more comfortable after learning that parents only see videos of erratic driving. “In fact, it could be considered less intrusive than some GPS devices that other insurers are experimenting with for teenage drivers.”

Family dynamics may play into which families opt to keep a camera, an unblinking eye, on their teenager. If a person has lost a child, or anyone for that matter in a wreck, it no doubt heightens the anxiety of their teenager getting behind the wheel and disappearing from their view.

American Family explains on its Web site, “When triggered by erratic vehicle movements, such as extreme braking, acceleration, cornering or a collision, the device provides a video clip of what occurred the 10 seconds before and after the event.”

Yet a DriveCam presentation states a device can be triggered to start recording by “pot holes, unpaved roads, rail road tracks, turning hard in a large vehicle, rocking an unloaded tractor-trailer, waste truck throwing a trash bin into the vehicle hard, jack-rabbit start, vehicle maintenance, defensive driving / evasive maneuver, risky driving maneuver, collision, etc.” That is why footage is reviewed by a safety analyst.

Interview with Rusty Weiss, Director of DriveCam

What do you do with all the videos collected, such as studies or findings via research?

Weiss: Videos are available for 90 days after they are collected. They are temporarily archived (less than a year) and then they are permanently deleted. Videos that contain crash events are analyzed with greater scrutiny and are saved for a longer period of time. We never share any video with anyone outside our business unless we have permission from the family to do so or when compelled by court order (that’s happened twice in our history but in both cases the family had already signed a release as they wanted the video to be part of the investigation).

What do you say to critics who believe this is going too far into invading privacy?

Weiss: As far as privacy is concerned: We capture sights and sounds of less than 1/10th of 1% of the average teen’s driving time. Teens trigger our system 10 times per week, on average, in the first 2 to 3 weeks but then quickly drop the number of triggered events to less than 1 per week. In each case, we capture 8 seconds before the trigger and 4 seconds after so the total amount of video compared to total drive time is very, very small. The best part about g-force triggering is that the teen can quite easily prevent the system from triggering just by slowing down and paying attention (similar to how they drove when mom and dad were in the car with them).

FYI – there’s a study coming out soon from the University of North Carolina that will show that teens rarely ever trigger the camera while with mom and dad but show a 10x increase when mom and dad are no longer in the car – in this study, the system is not employed to give feedback to the teen or family – it is there to measure what naturally happens). It should be no surprise to any of us that some teens drastically change their behaviors when not under direct supervision. Our system puts mom and dad back in the parenting role when needed but gives the teen 100% of their privacy when they choose to drive reasonably. There are occasions when teens are doing the right thing and the camera triggers – in these cases we identify the good work and help the parents reinforce good driving habits.

Most notable about the privacy issue is the feedback we get from the teens: more than 70% are concerned about it before starting the program and fewer than 10% say it was an issue after being in the program. For us, privacy has been a crucial component to the program – it is highly valuable to a teen to have it and they will work to keep it – even keep their focus on driving despite tons of pressure to do otherwise. I don’t think we’d be as successful if privacy weren’t in the balance.

Parents are quick to point out that there really shouldn’t be anything “private” going on in the car when their kids are first learning to drive. Also, we actively work to protect the teen’s privacy on matters that are not driving related. For example, kids have been captured doing things you wouldn’t think they’d do if a camera was in their car (nose picking, for example). We will hold back a video that shows something like this if the potential lesson to learn from the driving aspect of the event is minor. Our need to do this has been very, very rare as teens learn quickly in our program to not trigger the camera and that takes care of most every potential issue.

There is evidence from multiple research projects that shows the Teen Safe Driver program works as a proactive behavior-modification tool. American Family also includes a 10-rule Teen Safety Pledge, listing offenses that will result in losing driving privileges. Some of those rules include: being out past curfew, no texting or use of cell phone, no drinking or drugs, wearing seatbelt, and limiting the number of non-family members in the car when the teenager is driving. It also states that teenagers will be rewarded with more driving time and additional social privileges for doing a good job while driving.

More than 10,000 teen drivers have used the technology provided by DriveCam which first used the in-vehicle cameras for business consumers. DriveCam admits that it is natural for employees to be uncomfortable and can fester into employee resistance without good communication. A common concern is “It’s Big Brother” or “It’s an illegal invasion of privacy.”

DriveCam also advertises consumer solutions for “teen tracking, elderly tracking and relationship tracking.” If teen tracking isn’t creepy and controlling, how about in-car video tracking of a significant other?

Captured videos of teen drivers:

Do you believe in-vehicle cameras to watch over teenage drivers is a good idea or a bad idea?

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.