A New New York City bill would allow authorities to use a device called “Textalyzer” (word play on Breathalyzer) to scan if a person used their phone while driving. This is supposed to detect when accidents happen because of distracted driving.
Under the new legislation, proposed by New York State Senator Terrence Murphy (R-Westchester) and Assembly Assistant Speaker Felix Ortiz (D-Kings), as well as by the Distracted Operators Risk Casualties (DORCs) awareness organization, drivers caught in accidents would be subject to the Textalyzer, and the consent would be presumed automatically.
That means the police won’t need the drivers’ consent when checking their devices for texting activity. If the drivers refuse to allow their phone to be scanned, their license could be suspended or even revoked.
The bill seems to have been crafted with good intentions in mind, if nothing else. Evan Lieberman, the son of DORCs co-founder Ben Lieberman, was killed in a car accident in 2011 by a distracted driver in New York. The bill has been dubbed “Even’s Law” in his memory and to raise awareness about the issue of texting-and-driving.
"When people were held accountable for drunk driving, that's when positive change occurred," Lieberman said in a press release. "It's time to recognize that distracted driving is a similar impairment, and should be dealt with in a similar fashion. This is a way to address people who are causing damage."
The “Textalyzer” device supposedly can’t collect any of the content from the phone. A warrant would be required for that. The device would only scan for recent activity on the phone.
Potential Issues With The Technology
What’s not clear is how the device actually works and how reliable and accurate it is. Does it scan only for wireless services such as phone calls and SMS? If so, would putting the phone in Airplane mode hide the activity from the Textalyzer?
Also, does it scan for activity in apps such as iMessage and Whatsapp? If it’s tailored for certain applications, then it may not work with those that are encrypted. All encrypted communications look like noise, and it’s not clear if this device would be able to capture the metadata.
If the Textalyzer works by detecting, say, a higher temperature of the smartphone to understand whether the device was recently used, that would also pose another set of issues. What if the phone was exposed to the sun on a sunny day, and it got hot? Does the Textalyzer know the difference?
Then there are also issues such as other people in the car using the phones, but not the drivers themselves. How would the device or the police officers know the difference?
How accurate the device is in achieving its proposed goal of identifying when a person used the phone while driving makes all the difference. If the evidence gathered is flawed from the start, then Courts can’t rely on it to make a good judgement and may start disregarding such evidence. Defense lawyers could certainly make a strong case against it.
It also remains to be seen if taking someone’s device and scanning it against their will is even constitutional, but this would have to be tested in Court in the coming years, if the Senate bill becomes law in New York City.
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu.