Your own black box

Jason Gilbert
Inspired by the Trayvon Martin case, four undergrads from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst created a Black Box for Humans, which would record tamper-proof audio of your surroundings wherever you went.

ORLANDO—Is it time for humans to get their own black box?

That’s the provocative question behind an ambitious project by four undergraduate engineering students from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, presented at this weekend's Cornell Cup in Orlando, Fla. Over the course of a school year, the Amherst team built a prototype “black box for humans” that you could carry around wherever you went, and could be activated to record audio of your surroundings in case you ran into trouble.

That audio recording—heavily encrypted, completely tamper-proof and admissible as evidence in a U.S. courtroom, per the Amherst team—would hypothetically serve as an unquestionable, unbiased on-the-scene account of a contentious dispute between opposing parties, say, or of a person’s untimely final moments. And while that may seem dark, the necessity of such a recording device reveals itself in painful detail given the project’s inspiration: The killing of Trayvon Martin.

Indeed, the precise particulars of Martin’s death remain shrouded in mystery due in part to the lack of audio or video at the scene of the crime. Had Martin been carrying some kind of always-on recording device, per Amherst engineer Brett Kaplan, much of the uncertainty may have been mitigated.

In a description of their project posted to the Cornell Cup website, Team Amherst names the problem it seeks to address, and what they view as its remedy:

It is not uncommon for people to find themselves in dangerous or possibly life-threatening situations in out-of-the-way locations. Victims of crime and accidents need a trustworthy form of evidence to bring justice to those who have harmed them. ... [We] will provide the “Personal Black Box”, a portable, personal security device. This instrument will continuously record audio and video streams of the surrounding environment, without revealing its presence, and store recently recorded information on command.

The team—comprised of Kaplan, Jack Vorwald, Mike Burns and Ryan Holmes, with assistance from advisors Professor David Tilman and Professor Tilman Wolf—presented its black box prototype at the annual competition hosted by Cornell (with sponsorship from Intel) that challenges engineering students to create a new technology of their choosing using an embedded Intel chip. Almost 30 teams competed with wide-ranging projects that took advantage of the tiny, embeddable processor.

The Amherst black box for humans was perhaps the most intriguing idea on display, even though it’s not yet retail ready. Currently too large, it’s about the size of Big Mac box, with a cartoonish red button on top to activate recording; a more manageable device would be small and discreet enough to fit in a pocket, or be clipped to a lapel. It also does not yet support video recording, one of the goals that the students laid out at the beginning of the fall semester; and, perhaps most importantly, unlike the famous airplane black box, it is not indestructible.

What it does have, however, according to the team, is legality. The key differentiator between a smartphone with a microphone and Amherst’s black box is in the encryption: In order to be accepted as evidence in an American court, a recording has to pass certain security tests that most smartphone recordings do not. The Amherst team said that, after studying up on U.S. law, its black box does adhere to those strict parameters.

The black box for humans also succeeds as a conversation starter about the necessity, and permissibility, of certain personal recording devices. The project exists squarely at the nexus of two emerging, interconnected technology trends that seem certain to explode in the coming months and years: The increasing ease with which one can create digital recordings, and more vociferous concerns about rights to public privacy.

On the one hand, omnipresent technology like smartphone cameras and novel devices like Google Glass and the Memoto life-logging camera have made it easier than ever to document your every move. On the other, concerns that these devices, with their pocketable form factors and silent shutters, have completely eradicated any sense of privacy one might have expected when stepping out of one’s own home. How can these two ideas coexist? Should it be illegal to record some members of society—police officers, for example—without their consent? What if a law is being broken?

The intent of the black box for humans is, at its heart, benevolent: It’s a security measure, a technology meant to bring wrongdoers to justice or clear the fog surrounding he-said/she-said arguments. But it’s also capable of far more nefarious purposes, one would imagine. It’s an endless cycle—of benevolence squaring off against malevolence, offense and defense, good and evil.

Should the Amherst team, or another technology company, soldier onward with this project or others like it, it will almost certainly have to deal with the implications of mass-producing a near-invisible recording device that can essentially create surveillance without any consent.

But even it doesn’t seek a wide release, that a team of college students would opt to build and develop this device still seems a fascinating snapshot of our time, containing as it does the implication that sticking a black box in your pocket—as though we were airplanes in danger of a crash—has become as essential as a cell phone or house keys.


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