Safety vs. privacy: St. George News readers sound off on ‘Textalyzer’ device

Composite image. Cracked cellphone photo by FotoDuets/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Police officers on the East Coast may soon have a new device for use at accident scenes – if legislation allowing its use passes in New York. The device, dubbed the “Textalyzer,” was developed to help officers determine whether distracted driving is a factor in crashes. While St. George News readers – and drivers – see these crashes on a regular basis, they are rarely attributed to distracted driving…at least according to the drivers.

“Textalyzer” unit, developed by Cellebrite to combat distracted driving | Photo courtesy of Digital Trends, St. George News

Named after the Breathalyzer, the device would provide officers with a fairly reliable way to make an on-scene determination of whether a driver was using a cellphone or handheld device while driving, much like the Breathalyzer provides officers with the ability to ascertain if a driver had ingested alcohol by providing a blood alcohol content reading.

And like the Breathalyzer, no warrant would be required for officers to connect the Textalyzer device to the driver’s cellphone to download information about smartphone usage. A driver’s refusal to allow testing could result in license suspension, according to legislation first introduced in 2016 in New York.

Other states, including New Jersey and Tennessee, are also considering similar legislation to allow the device to be used by law enforcement. A bill legalizing the device’s use has yet to be introduced in the Utah Legislature, but if it becomes law in New York, Utah may not be far behind.

The device looks similar to an iPad and would be connected to the driver’s mobile phone to scan for calls, emails or text messages sent when the driver would have been operating the vehicle.

While proponents of the Textalyzer, including traffic safety advocate organizations, say it would reduce needless deaths on the nation’s highways, opponents such as the ACLU say it is an abhorrent violation of privacy and goes against constitutional protections that guard against warrantless search and seizures.

St. George News asked its readers via a Facebook video last week if they would support the use of the Textalyzer for law enforcement as a tool to reduce distracted driving crashes or if the device is stepping over the line.

And readers stepped up, submitting over 200 responses. A majority of the reader comments posted on the video refer to privacy protection and the Fourth Amendment. One reader, Davis Johnson, listed the amendment in its entirety in his response:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Johnson’s comment garnered the support of more than 25 readers.

Amanda Amidan posted similar views when she wrote, in part, “Its a huge violation of privacy. I have no trouble complying if they have a warrant. (I’m) not about to just have my phone invaded.”

These comments echoed similar concerns in New York, both ethical and legal. In fact, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the state’s Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee to “examine the effectiveness of … this new and emerging technology … and thoroughly evaluate its implications” to protect the privacy and safety of New York residents, according to a report by The Associated Press.

How much information is made available with the Textalyzer ?

Officials at Cellebrite, the Israeli-based manufacturer of the device, say the Textalyzer does not provide personal details such as text recipients or message contents, but instead registers screen clicks or swipes, timestamps and whether a message was incoming or outgoing.

Allowing officers full access to the phone and all details contained within the device was a concern with many of St. George News’ readers, including Dan Timpson, who wrote that officers “will look at more than just texts on your phone’s. A complete invasion of privacy.”

The aftermath of a collision on Red Hills Parkway in St. George, Utah, June 11, 2018 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

However, supporters of the technology say it will only reveal phone usage, not the content of what a motorist is doing, and if the phone is password-protected, the owner would have to unlock it first.

The question of whether the Textalyzer would be able to tell how the person was operating the device was also raised by reader Darrell Ream, who wrote, “Can this textalyzer tell if you have used hands free texting?”

The answer, according to the device’s developers, is yes. The Textalyzer can determine if the driver was using hands-free technology to respond to messages via voice-to-text, which would usually not trigger a traffic violation.

However, the importance of safety was also on display in the Facebook comments. Chris Crothers countered opponents of the device by writing “My safety while driving, trumps privacy of others.”

Textalyzer opponents say that phone records can already prove or disprove cellphone use, rendering the device moot. However, that may not be entirely true.

Obtaining phone records is not that easy and requires a warrant. Even then, there is a delay in obtaining the documents, and phone records don’t always provide sufficient information, potentially leaving gaps that do not provide the whole picture.

For example, only text messages sent would register on phone records, and the record would not show when a driver is taking selfies or using other apps to communicate. Cellbrite developers say the Textalyzer fills in these gaps.

However, many legal experts say the benefits offered with the new technology aren’t convincing enough, referring to a 2014 Supreme Court case, Riley v. California, in which the high court declared that law enforcement must have a search warrant to open a phone confiscated during an arrest.

How bad is distracted driving?

It is estimated that nine people are killed every day in crashes where distracted driving was determined to be a factor, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That equates to nearly 3,300 lives lost on average on the nation’s roadways each year.

In response to the death toll, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is working with cellphone manufacturers to provide a lockout function for drivers, similar to the “airplane mode” setting for flying. At this point, Apple is the only manufacturer to make good on the suggestion.

Apple’s iOS 11 launched a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” feature that prevents notifications while the phone owner is driving and notifies callers or text-senders that the driver is currently on the road.

The debate over whether the Textalyzer is a viable solution or another ineffective regulation is ongoing. It remains to be seen how the bill in new York bill will ultimately be received and whether other states will follow suit with similar legislation.

To see the St. George News video and all the reader responses, click here.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • Carpe Diem November 26, 2018 at 11:57 am

    Do it! About time. Once real penalties are there, people might get off their phones. A friend commutes in SLC, and says MOST drivers at stop lights are on their phone screen. Not talking either.

  • NickDanger November 26, 2018 at 12:05 pm

    Classic case of infringing on liberty via fearmongering.

    This device wormholes its way straight through so many legal checks and balances, it’s the legal equivalent of the Starship Enterprise; it’s continuing mission, to seek out new and more efficient ways of bypassing the Constitutional rights of Americans.

    Can I say that there is already a system in place which accomplishes this exact same purpose? A system which requires judge-approved probable cause before issuing a legal warrant for the cellphone records – the only source Law Enforcement actually needs in order to determine whether there was distracted driving.

    Asking people to submit their cellphone to police for this type of intrusive violation is…a LOT to ask. Especially considering the ask is coming directly from a government that is known to secretly exceed its mandate at every opportunity when it comes to invading privacy.

    I guarantee that if you give police in the field this kind of easy access to people’s cellphone data, they will abuse the privilege. I don’t feel I have to present much evidence that I’m correct about that, police in general have a long history of bending rules and violating the spirit of the law in order to accomplish their purpose, a history which speaks for itself.

    • Carpe Diem November 26, 2018 at 3:12 pm

      Take the bus, Nick, and don’t worry about it.

      • NickDanger November 26, 2018 at 8:49 pm

        I’m not worried about it, Carpe. I’m a middle-aged white male with short hair driving a conservative car. Last time I got pulled was during the Clinton administration. I also don’t make much use of my cellphone. Certainly I’m not so attached to it that I am using it while driving – I don’t have anything to say to anybody at this point in life that can’t wait 15 minutes.

        Point being, I am going to suffer from this law not at all. I am looking at it from a Constitutional perspective, and it looks to me like a clear power grab by the government.

        Personally, I have no specific problem with handing my phone to a police officer to do with as he pleases. If he really wants to invade my privacy, he will find out that I get a lot of spam e-mail from insurance companies, prefer to call people rather than text, and don’t play video games.

        I just happen to be someone who knows that every inch you give the government translates to a mile. In this case, the slippery slope getting greased down by this device ends at the government giving themselves access to all the information on your cellphone at the drop of a hat.

        We live a great life here in the USA. So good that we frequently forget to protect ourselves from our not-so-benevolent rulers.

  • Real Life November 26, 2018 at 12:17 pm

    If the ACLU is against it, then it’s gotta be a good thing.

  • AnnieMated November 26, 2018 at 12:25 pm

    I have two really simple solutions for those of you who believe that a phone call or text message is more important than the safety of other people on the road or that this proposed law is ‘an invasion of privacy’

    1) Don’t use your cell phone while driving or;
    2) Stop driving altogether.

    I don’t care how important you think that text message or phone call is; My safety, and that others, trumps your privacy .

    • bikeandfish November 26, 2018 at 1:58 pm

      But we already have laws the prohibit the use of cell phones during driving as well as sentencing guidelines for such behavior. This technology doesn’t do anything to prevent such accidents. This is solely about making evidence gathering easier for police officers which is supposed to be limited by constitutional protections. I think we can support prohibitions on cell phone use while also protecting civil liberties explicitly outlined in the Bill of Rights.

  • Neil November 26, 2018 at 1:03 pm

    I’ll support this on one condition: if the laptop screens in police vehicles turn off automatically when the vehicle is in motion.

  • iceplant November 26, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    I’m fine with this.
    Now, if we can just do something about drivers who blatantly run stop lights and signs.

  • LunchboxHero November 26, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    I am all in favor of this. And to those who oppose it on the grounds that it’s an invasion of privacy, you’re delusional if you think ALL of your personal information isn’t already floating around in cyberspace. Just owning a smartphone and accepting the terms and conditions of almost any app under the sun makes you vulnerable to all sorts of data harvesting. But playing Candy Crush Saga is so important to you that you blindly press the “Accept” button without even reading the fine print. *eye roll*

    • bikeandfish November 26, 2018 at 5:28 pm

      The fundamental difference, as you highlighted, is consent. This equipment will be compulsory if you pulled over and suspected of using your cellphone illegally. In the past judges were middlemen meant to protect civil liberties unless a legal threshold was met by the state. Technology like this bypasses those constitutional protections and relies solely on one officers interpretation of probable cause. And law enforcement has an inherent bias in its mission.

      • AnnieMated November 28, 2018 at 8:55 am

        “This equipment will be compulsory if you pulled over and suspected of using your cellphone illegally.” And it should be just as the breathalyzer/blood test is compulsory if you’re suspected of drunk driving. In reply to your comment above, the device won’t prevent crashes but it might just deter people because they know if a crash happens, their cell phone will be searched. As it stands all one has to do is lie or delete the messages.

        [scumbag driver] *textingtextingtexting*
        [scumbag driver] *deletetextdeletetextdeletetext*
        [Police] “hey[scumbag driver] were you using your cell phone?
        [scumbag driver] ‘no officer, here’s my phone for proof. I would NEVER do anything like that, ever’
        [Police] looks at phone, finds nothing because the messages/ calls were deleted

        [scumbag driver] *textingtextingtexting*
        [scumbag driver] *deletetextdeletetextdeletetext*
        [Police] “hey[scumbag driver] were you using your cell phone?
        [scumbag driver] ‘no officer, here’s my phone for proof. I would NEVER do anything like that, ever’
        [police] plugs phone in to textalyzer, finds otherwise.
        [police] This shows otherwise. Here’s your ticket for distracted driving.

  • KR567 November 27, 2018 at 6:40 am

    Yep….but as soon as a white cop checks the phone of an African American then it will become a racist issue

  • Henry November 29, 2018 at 9:35 am

    I have no problem handing over my cell phone, as soon as the police officer presents a subpoena. This is illegal search & seizure. Next thing you know, they’ll be able to seize your vehicle and assets for no reason at all. Oh – yea, they already do.

  • jpff November 29, 2018 at 10:24 pm

    The only ones who have anything to fear with this proposed law are those who text while they drive and get into wrecks. No private information will be provided; only usage will be revealed.
    Everyday, I see people pass by me holding their cell phones and gazing at the screens. According to my understanding of this proposed device, it will only be used when a crash occurs.

  • justsaying December 3, 2018 at 9:53 am

    “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Benjamin Franklin, Memoirs of the life & writings of Benjamin Franklin.

    “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” Abraham Lincoln.

    “Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance.” Woodrow Wilson.

    “I hope we once again have reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: as government expands, liberty contracts.” Ronald Reagan.

    Keep giving up your rights folks, that’s exactly what they want you to do so they can have more ways to infringe on your privacy. You shouldn’t be texting and driving, or distracted in any way, but there are current legal procedures already in place for them to do their detective work. Too bad if it takes a little work to get to the bottom of it, they want to incriminate you right on the spot.

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