New York Wants Cops to Use ‘Textalyzers’ to Scan Your Phone After a Car Accident

Cellebrite is developing mysterious new tech that would let police see if you were using your phone while driving.
Janus Rose
New York, United States
April 12, 2016, 5:38pm

Getting into a car accident might soon mean more than just hospital bills and higher insurance premiums in New York.

Under a new road safety bill being proposed in the New York State legislature, all drivers in the state would automatically consent to having police digitally scan their phones using roadside "textalyzer" tests in the aftermath of a collision.

The bill is being called "Evan's Law" after a 19-year-old college student who was killed by a distracted driver in 2011, and is being advocated by Evan's father Ben Lieberman, who heads the awareness organization Distracted Operators Risk Casualties (DORCs).

The technology is the digital equivalent of the breathalyzer tests used on drunk drivers, proponents say, enabling cops to detect whether drivers were texting or swiping for Tinder dates while driving.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the firms developing the technology in question is Cellebrite, the same digital forensics company that was heavily rumored—despite a suspicious lack of evidence—to be the "outside party" that helped the FBI break into an iPhone used by one of the suspects in the 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting.

"There's a significant number of drivers who continually engage in reckless behavior, such as texting, using apps and browsing the web on their mobile devices while behind the wheel."

Unlike in that high-profile case, a Cellebrite spokesperson confirmed to Motherboard that it is working on the phone-scanning technology described in the New York bill. Cellebrite did not respond to several specific questions about its technology, including what data is collected, how it deals with devices protected by passcode lockscreens or encryption, and which devices and operating systems it will be compatible with.

The bill's advocates insist there are no privacy concerns, claiming in a press release that Cellebrite's technology "completely avoids drivers' personal data" when it scans their devices and does not collect any messages, contacts, emails or other content.

"Certainly distracted driving is a serious problem, but I think there are still many serious questions about this technology," Mariko Hirose, a senior staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, told Motherboard. For one, "it's not clear if you'd have to enter your password in order for this to work."

That's a big deal, because the bill states that any "refusal to submit a mobile telephone or personal electronic device to the field testing will result in the revocation of the driver's license or permit," effective immediately. Depending on how the testing works, that could also mean surrendering your device's PIN or encryption password to the cops and simply trusting their technology to only extract information relevant to distracted driving.

Another possibility is that Cellebrite or some other company has developed a way to extract certain forms of device activity data without needing a passcode.

But Hirose points out that either case could lead to problems, since it can be difficult to distinguish regular device activity from physical user interactions.

"Even if you finely tune the technology, there could be many cases where the cellphone is actively working but in a way that's consistent with distracted driving laws," she said. "This allows cops to do this field testing for every fender bender. It's concerning from a policy perspective to give police that power."

New York was the first state to ban the use of cellphones while driving and has a reputation for pioneering road safety regulations later adopted across the US. According to Governor Andrew Cuomo, motorists have seen an 840 percent increase in tickets for texting while driving since 2011.

"Unfortunately, the problem has now developed beyond hands-free phone calling," State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, who is co-sponsoring the bill, said in a press statement. "There's a significant number of drivers who continually engage in reckless behavior, such as texting, using apps and browsing the web on their mobile devices while behind the wheel. These people will continue to put themselves and others at risk unless we come up with preventive ways to successfully stop them."

But privacy advocates say it's still not clear how this technology can help curb that behavior without putting privacy and civil liberties at risk.

"Our perspective is that this is a very serious public safety concern, but this bill is ill-conceived and not tailored to the problem," Hirose told Motherboard.