Protecting Crash Data

Crash data may be supplied by the cars themselves.

In the immediate aftermath of a car accident, a great deal of information is exchanged, communicated and stored. Drivers and law enforcement officers must deal with and collect data on injuries, insurance information, and the identification of all those involved.

But in many cars today, more information is being recorded and stored in the car itself. This information is invaluable in determining the actions leading to the accident. Researchers at TU’s Institute for Information Security (iSec) are working to ensure that information remains safe.

Often called a “black box,” different manufacturers give the recorders different names. General Motors, for instance, calls it a sensing and diagnostic module (SDM). The SDM measures and records information such as stopping rate (which allows the airbag to trigger if needed), speed, brake light status, throttle position and engine RPMs in the five seconds before a crash.

“This is great information for assigning responsibility for an accident,” said Jeremy Daily, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “It can be used to help reconstruct what happened before an accident and even presented in court to determine liability or argue for criminal charges.”

In 2012, a new federal law may take effect requiring a standard set of information in the modules to be accessible by car owners. This could be a boon for parents wanting to check their teenager’s driving habits or for crash victims who want to review and store crash data themselves.

“But how safe is that information?” Daily asked. “Could a hacker alter the ‘events’ before the case is closed, thereby changing the supposed facts of the case? How can officials prove that the data they are presenting is actually the data from the vehicle in question, especially if that vehicle has been destroyed?”

Daily is asking those questions and more; identifying weaknesses in the systems and creating solutions to make the data more secure.

“The module data is an unbiased witness,” Daily said. “But we have to ensure that the ‘witness’ can’t be tampered with.”  

Crash Research as Family Fun

When Daily was a teenager, he was caught practicing some particularly unsafe driving techniques, which eventually led to his career in crash reconstruction.

“My father, who was a mechanical engineer as well as a law enforcement officer, quickly found out about the incident,” Daily said. “My punishment was to use physics to identify the possible tragic outcomes of my actions.”

Oddly enough, the incident was the start of a partnership that continues today.

His father, John Daily, who has retired from law enforcement, continues to work as a crash reconstruction consultant and trainer for the Institute of Police Technology and Management.

“While I was pursuing my doctoral degree, my father, another author (Nathan Shigemura) and I wrote a book about crash reconstruction,” Daily said.

Today, that book, Fundamentals of Traffic Crash Reconstruction, is used internationally for crash training and is considered the industry standard. Both Dailys regularly train law enforcement officers on the basics of crash reconstruction and are often called as expert witnesses in court cases where crash liability is being determined.

This background, along with his experience as an Air Force research engineer, made the younger Daily a natural fit for the crash module research project through iSec.  

Validating and Preserving Crash Data

Daily makes it clear what the research project is not doing.

“There is a lot of laboratory research on accuracy of the data,” Daily said. “Researchers crash a car in a laboratory setting and then look to ensure the data is correct. We aren’t doing that.”

Instead, Daily and his research assistants are verifying the techniques for accurately extracting that data from the modules, using the best practices for digital forensics.

“This is important because there is more and more information being stored in every car,” Daily said. “A new Cadillac is coming out with 40 gigabytes of hard drive space. That’s a lot of information.”

Daily said the industry has done well at collecting diagnostic and historical data on cars, but today there is a greater need for digital forensics. This means the focus has to shift from simple collection of data and focus more on preservation and validation of that data.  

Crash Data Research as a Part of iSec’s Bigger Picture

Daily’s research is being done under the auspices of iSec, a University institute that began in 2007 with the vision of becoming the premier authority of information assurance and forensics in higher education and institutional research in the region.

The iSec is an interdisciplinary program combining the skills of computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering faculty and students, all working toward the institute’s goals.

Even before iSec began, ENS had a national reputation for information security. In 2000, TU was the first university to become fully compliant by gaining certification in federal standards for cyber security training. In 2002, the National Security Agency (NSA) designated TU as one of only two national centers for the development of cyber security faculty.

For several years, ENS students and faculty have worked with local law enforcement agencies providing digital forensics support. In March 2008, Daily used his crash reconstruction expertise to help train law enforcement officers from 15 area agencies.

In addition to training local law enforcement, iSec faculty and students have given congressional testimony, White House briefings and provided information to the Federal Trade Commission and the Pentagon in the areas of information assurance, digital forensics and telecommunications security.