EU proposal for automated car emergency calls addresses privacy concerns

There are still some data protection concerns though, an opposing party in the EU Parliament said

The European Union has ironed out privacy concerns in a proposed law that would make it mandatory for vehicles to have systems that automatically call emergency services in case of a crash.

Called "eCall", the system would enable an audio channel between vehicles and emergency services via a public mobile wireless communications network that would be triggered automatically by sensors in the event of an accident. The system, which would be dormant when the vehicle is being used, could also be triggered manually and is designed to also send data to emergency services.

It would also enable emergency services to decide immediately which type of rescue operation is needed, helping them to arrive faster and potentially saving 2,500 lives a year while reducing the severity of injuries and cutting the costs of traffic jams, according to the European Parliament.

A law that would require all new car models and light commercial vehicles to be equipped with the technology from March 2018 was backed by a committee of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) on Thursday. Parliament had in 2012 called for the system to be implemented by next year, but the proposal was delayed for various reasons, including privacy concerns.

While such a system could save lives, not every driver in the EU is delighted by the idea of a government mandated in-vehicle system that makes automatic calls. Some have expressed worries about potential misuses of a system that tracks a vehicle's location and have raised privacy concerns.

However, these concerns were addressed in the new eCall proposal hammered out in a deal between the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, where national ministers from each EU country meet to adopt laws and coordinate policies.

"As a public service, eCall will be free of charge for all citizens, whatever car they drive and whatever its purchase price. The new rules will ensure that eCall works only as a safety device. It will be illegal to use it to track a driver's movements or to misuse location data, which must be sent only to the emergency services," said MEP Olga Sehnalova, rapporteur on the issue.

MEPs strengthened the draft law's data protection clause to preclude tracking of eCall-equipped vehicles before an accident occurs. Under the agreed-to deal, the automatic call would give emergency services "only a basic minimum data such as the class of vehicle, the type of fuel used, the time of the accident and the exact location."

The draft law was further amended to ensure data gathered by emergency centers or their service partners will not be transferred to others without explicit consent. Moreover, manufacturers will have to ensure that the design of eCall permits for the full and permanent deletion of gathered data.

But the eCall system could still have data protection problems, said Judith Sargentini, a MEP for the green party, which still opposes the plan and thinks an eCall system should be voluntary.

Even though the system is "dormant" it still has to be active in some way to be able to send a signal with location data based on GPS, she said, adding that you never know who might be able to hack this and read out the data from a distance. Moreover, the system has to coexist with commercial eCall-type systems that probably will be able to sell data to third parties. And under the new proposal it is still unclear whether an eCall made in case of an accident is handled by the commercial system or the noncommercial system and thus who will be responsible for the data, Sargentini said.

Besides, the plan is expensive and the Green Party isn't so sure that ambulance response times will be shortened as a result of the system, she said.

It is very unlikely, though, that those arguments will stick as the Green Party seems to be the only party opposing the plan. The agreement was approved by the Internal Market Committee, 30-1, with two abstentions. The proposed law has to be formally approved by all EU member states, after which it would be voted on by the whole Parliament, which is expected to happen in March next year.

A separate decision that obliges member states to prepare their infrastructure to receive and handle eCall no later than October 2017 entered into force in June.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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