London - Every new car sold in Britain will have to have a ‘black box’ device fitted to track drivers’ movements from next year, under plans being imposed by the European Union.
Despite serious concerns about privacy and cost, UK ministers admit they are powerless to stop the Big Brother technology being forced on motorists and carmakers.
The Government believes the gadget, designed to help emergency services find crashed vehicles, will add at least £100 (R1750) to the cost of vehicles without providing significant safety improvements.
Officials also fear the scheme, known as eCall, could be used by police or insurance companies to monitor motorists’ every move.
The European Commission has ruled that by October next year, all new cars and vans sold across Europe must be fitted with the technology, which contains a mobile phone-like SIM card designed to transmit the vehicle’s location to emergency services in the event of a crash.
But The Mail on Sunday has seen official correspondence from the Department of Transport showing the UK’s opposition to the policy, which could lead to the “constant tracking” of vehicles.
In a letter to MPs, Transport Minister Robert Goodwill writes: “The basis for our opposition is that costs to the UK outweigh the benefits.
“Unfortunately, there is very little support for the UK position and no possibility of blocking this legislation. We are working with other member states to minimise the potential burdens on manufacturers and the potential cost to consumers.
“With regard to the rules on privacy and data protection, other member states have expressed similar concerns to us, about the potential for constant tracking of vehicles via the eCall system.”
Emma Carr, of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said last night: “Motorists will not be comfortable forcibly having a black box installed which is capable of recording and transmitting their exact location when they are driving.”
Some car manufacturers, including BMW and Volvo, already include eCall devices in their latest models.
An SOS button near the dashboard, linked to a SIM card, allows drivers to call emergency service 999 quickly. And if airbags are deployed it automatically sends a text message to emergency services with the car’s location as well as its unique vehicle ID number.
Voluntary take-up has been low across the industry so the EU ruled all new car models must include eCall from October 1, 2015. Motorists will be unable to switch it off and it will be tested in MoT checks.
The EU Parliament voted it through last month and a draft of the law is due to be published next week before it is agreed by the EU Commission.
Britain is trying to push back the deadline by two years.
The UK also hopes the new text will include assurances on the privacy risks of eCall, which were highlighted in a European Parliament legal report earlier this year. The study said manufacturers will want to include “value added services” for the SOS devices, such as sharing the data with insurers and recovery firms.
A separate study by the EU Data Protection Supervisor warns of the “potential intrusiveness” of eCall given that it operates on the same basis as mobile phones and potentially enables the constant collection of the vehicle’s geolocation. It urges “stricter safeguards” against “unlawful” use of personal data.
Brussels insists eCall will save 2500 lives a year by speeding up emergency services response times.