This op-ed originally appeared in The Center Square.
President Joe Biden’s infrastructure legislation, passed in November 2021, undercuts consumer privacy.
Buried in the legislation is a requirement that car manufacturers create a new monitoring system for cars by the year 2026. The bill requires new systems to “passively monitor” a driver’s performance to identify whether a driver is impaired.
Biden’s fall legislative achievement will cause car manufacturers to direct research and innovation to the development of a system that will regularly track and store a vast amount of personal information through systems that could manifest as breathalyzer test, retinal eye scans, or touch tests on a car’s ignition.
It’s bills like these that ought to make us wonder, “Who asked for this?” Most often, the truth is, no one. Consumer demand is rarely the impetus behind this kind of innovation. It’s regulation itself that drives these invasive technological developments
Of course, consumer desire certainly drives technological innovation. But when companies advertise new products to satiate consumer demand, they rarely highlight the privacy implications of their products. As a general rule, consumers like their privacy.
Biometric safety features greatly benefit insurance companies and governments concerned with establishing legal liability or enforcing traffic codes. The problem is how they’d essentially strong-arm citizens into complying with personally invasive technologies or relying exclusively on public transportation. Given the necessity of transportation and the lack of reliable public transit in middle America, it’d be hard to argue that consumers who still chose to drive cars even with these invasive features were actually consenting to the government’s newest “safety” demands.
“But hang on,” you might say, “What’s the big deal? So you give up a little privacy – it’s not for nothing, is it? After all, there are lives at stake!”
While at first, invasive safety features seem like a small price to pay in exchange for lower fatality rates on our nation’s highways, the issues run deeper than a quantitative risk benefit analysis can indicate. Breathalyzers and retinal eye scans utilize biometric technology. This technology catalogs an individuals’ physical features in real time, meaning your average Joe would be forced to allow a third party to store bodily data to operate a motor vehicle.
Preventing death is certainly a noble goal, but there are limits to the extent human will can be overridden in the name of safety. Where’s the line? No one can give a precise answer. This means the question should be openly and vigorously debated, not buried in legislation that will only see the light of day in fragmented segments over the course of years.
Americans shouldn’t have to choose between reliable transportation and biometric privacy. Indeed, most Americans are unaware this choice ever existed. If they were, there’d probably be a great hue and cry against it. Polling shows the American public is increasingly concerned with its lack of privacy rights, particularly in digitally stored information.
Unfortunately, this recent government action valuing safety over privacy is only one of many examples of technological innovations with troubling privacy implications and virtually no public awareness.
The sad truth is regulations like Biden’s newest requirement for car safety pass with little to no substantive media coverage. While Americans may be concerned that their privacy rights are being eroded, most remain unaware of how government regulations are shaping their reality. Public ignorance is understandable in a media ecosystem focusing almost exclusively on issues that feed perverse algorithmic incentives – where discussions of policy are considered niche interests. Additionally, in the partisan news cycle, bad news for Biden is bad news for media outlets committed to capitalizing on confirmation bias.
A free nation cannot sustain itself if civil discourse in our current, click bait culture. This is because freedom itself is rooted in consent and Americans cannot vote their conscience when they remain unaware of the important practical implications of laws and regulations under which they must live.
The unsustainability of our current circumstances is clear. Because trust and consent go hand in glove, it should come as no surprise that as civil discourse has eroded, so too has public trust in foundational social institutions. From government to public health, Americans are increasingly skeptical of those in power.
To make matters worse, political conversations are rife with conflict. Polls show Americans are gripped by fear. Over 60 percent of Americans hold political views they intentionally self-censor. This climate of fear also shapes newsrooms. The Pew Research center found 41 percent of journalists reported either avoiding newsworthy stories or soften the tone of their stories to benefit their organization, not the public.
For democracy to flourish Americans must understand the world in which they live. This will only happen if responsible media outlets and journalists are willing to bring the public’s attention to the impact of regulation on everyday life. The rampant fear of inquiry in American culture threatens to cancel consent. Those who value freedom must not let this happen.