As a “Textalyzer” Comes Closer to Reality in NY, Civil Rights Advocates Clash With Safety Groups

distracted-drivingNew York State may be the first state in the country to equip police with a Textalyzer, meant to check whether a driver was using his or her phone immediately preceding a crash. Governor Andrew Cuomo has directed the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee to study the technology and the inevitable issues it could create for New York residents’ privacy and civil rights. Texting, or otherwise using your cell phone, is illegal in New York and violation of this law carries five driver violation points. There is an exception for hands-free calling.

The term, a play on the age-old breathalyzer which tests the blood alcohol content of potentially drunk drivers, is meant to function in a similar manner. After a vehicle accident, police would arrive on the scene and plug the Textalyzer into the driver’s cell phone. After about a minute, the Textalyzer would respond with whether the driver was texting, emailing, surfing the web or otherwise violating New York State’s hands-free drive law. Also similar to a breathalyzer test, refusing the roadside test could result in the mandatory suspension of the driver’s license.  

The device, still months away from production, is being developed by Cellebrite, an Israeli-based technology company. According to Cellebrite, the device would not be able to access “actual information” on the phone, such as “pictures, personal emails or web browsing history.” Security experts are unconvinced the textalyzer would only access information about phone usage. Rainey Reitman, of the Electric Frontier Foundation, told the Associated Press, “I am extremely nervous about handling a cell phone to a law enforcement officer and allowing them in any way to forensically analyze it.”

Privacy rights groups and civil rights activists have also lined up in opposition against the new device. According to these groups, the Textalyzer is not only a serious breach of privacy, but also wholly unnecessary because police can already determine whether cell phone use was a factor in an automobile accident by getting a warrant. Law enforcement agencies describe this process as so unnecessarily complex and time consuming, involving both a District Attorney and a judge in New York, that police officers rarely investigate. The Textalyzer, they say, would be a much more effective (and quick) manner of enforcing the law.

Between 2011 and 2015, 12 people were killed in New York State and 2,784 people were injured in car crashes were cell phone use was a factor. During this same time period, the police issued 1.2 million tickets to drivers on their phones. Of these 1.2 million tickets, a whopping 39% were for texting.


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