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Privacy, safety advocates clash over ‘Textalyzer’ test for distracted drivers

by Ace Damon
Privacy, safety advocates clash over 'Textalyzer' test for distracted drivers

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TORONTO – The new technology considered by Canadian police to capture distracted drivers is raising concerns among privacy advocates about possible risks to personal data.

The device, known as ‘TextalyzerIt would allow police to do roadside surveys on distracted driving suspects' cell phones, revealing whether they were using the devices while driving.

The National Safety Council says 26% of accidents in Canada involve a telephone and over 50% of drivers still use a telephone while driving.

But privacy advocates say the device could give police access to private data that they have no right to see without a court order.

"I understand we want to stop texting while driving, there's no doubt about that," former Ontario provincial privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian told the CTV news channel on Monday. "My concern is this: If the police are accessing your cell phone, they may be able to access other information … any confidential data?"

However, road safety advocate Patrick Brown of the Vulnerable User Law Coalition believes that privacy concerns are a "red herring."

"When the device is used … it only downloads ringtone and swipe data, it doesn't download any content on the phone," Brown said on CTV's Your Morning Wednesday.

“It downloads only a ringtone or timestamp. So when it comes to privacy, yes, you need to allow the police to connect this device to the phone – but I think it's a reasonable expectation and certainly not an unreasonable intrusion into someone's privacy, "he said.

"We are currently in crisis," Brown said. "At this point, police reported that the death rate of people using mobile devices causing accidents is exceeding the rate of drunk drivers who kill people."

Cavoukian argues that a cell phone is no longer "just a phone" but a "gateway" that "tracks huge amounts of information", whether it's "financial records … health data or your communications with multiple people."

"I want some assurance that the police will not be able to gain access to all this wealth of information they are not allowed to access," Cavoukian said, adding that these concerns need to be addressed before the technology is implemented.

Cavoukian suggests a Textalyzer “third party audit” to determine if there is a possibility for police to have access to information beyond the fact that the driver is texting while driving.

Textalyzer is a product of Israeli digital forensic firm Cellebrite – whose mobile forensic branch worked with over 6,000 law enforcement agencies, according to their website.

"This is a company that invests in all kinds of technologies," said Cavoukian. "It wouldn't surprise me if the police could have access to all this other information they don't have the right to access."

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