Chicago debates giving cops ‘textalyzers’ to test drivers’ smartphones

CHICAGO -- Could Chicago cops soon have the technology to tell if distracted drivers were texting or using their smartphone before getting in an accident?

A new piece of technology called a “textalyzer” debated at Chicago City Hall Thursday would make it possible for officers to scan drivers' phones after pulling them over. State legislatures in New York and Tennessee are also considering the technology, but so far Chicago is believed to be the first city to discuss it.

The City Council's Public Safety Committee discussed the growing issue of distracted driving Thursday. According to experts, distracted driving is blamed for the biggest spike in traffic deaths in 50 years. In some studies, as many as 50 percent of teenagers admit to texting or emailing while driving.

Ben Lieberman's 19-year-old son Evan was killed in a distracted driving accident in New York in 2011, and now he's pushing for using technology to prevent similar fatal accidents.

“More Americans will die from distracted driving than from the Vietnam war," Lierberman said while testifying before the committee. “To understand the problem is to implement deterrents, to create the appropriate social stigma.”

Among the solutions Lieberman supports is a device or software program that functions like a breathalyzer for smart phones.

Jody Wacker, an executive with the company Cellebrite, says the company's prototype "textalyzer" can be used to detect whether drivers had been distracted by their cellphones before an accident.

“It would be used by law enforcement, depending on how the law is written," Wacker said. "It would plug into the driver’s phone, the phone would never leave the driver’s hand and it scans just the operating system logs to see the activity on the phone.”

Advocates of the technology say it wouldn’t download data like phone numbers, e-mails or photos, but would only show if the device had been in use. But privacy advocates like Ed Yohnka at the ACLU of Illinois say the idea raises concerns.

"What we don’t know is how much information is gathered and under what circumstances," Yohnka said.

He says any information needed is available through the use of court-approved warrants. Both the company and proponents of such devices argue that they can be designed not to collect any personal information.

"This is showing typing and swiping without any ability to get to the personal content like phone conversations – it’s jumping through hoops to respect privacy," Lieberman said.

Either way, the technology is far from becoming adapted in Chicago, as the Public Safety Committee just approved a resolution asking Chicago police to review the technology.