Washington DC: High-tech tools threaten privacygreenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread
Published Sunday, October 8, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News
Washington DC: High-tech tools threaten privacy
ADVOCATES WORRY ABOUT ELECTRONIC MONITORING
BY ALAN SIPRESS
WASHINGTON -- A New York highway agency is tracking cars that have electronic-tollbooth tags for the latest on travel speeds and traffic jams.
In the Washington region, transportation officials want to monitor drivers talking on cell phones as they drive the Capital Beltway as a way of measuring congestion.
And an Alabama-based company has developed equipment that ``sniffs'' passing cars to identify which radio stations motorists have chosen.
These ``intelligent transportation systems,'' as they've been named, may solve traffic problems and be a boon to marketers, but they also raise fear of a new threat to privacy: the idea that drivers could soon be leaving electronic footsteps whenever they leave home.
``We could end up with an utterly pervasive monitoring of travelers' movements,'' warned Phil Agre, a professor of information studies at the University of California-Los Angeles.
While the public has begun to confront the hazards posed by unfettered access to information about individuals' medical profiles and Internet use, privacy advocates say there is still little recognition of the newest frontier: travel and location information.
``We are moving toward a surveillance society. Soon, government and private industry, often working in concert, will have the capability to monitor our every movement,'' said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union. ``While the technology is growing at light speed, the law that governs how the data can be used is developing at the speed of tortoises.''
At a time when traffic is outpacing efforts to expand highways, new technologies promise a once-unimagined capability to manage rush hour, respond instantly to crashes and eliminate backups at tollbooths. They also offer police new tools to catch scofflaws such as red-light runners, locate witnesses and provide businesses with immensely profitable ways to reach prospective customers.
Electronic tolling programs, such as E-ZPass in the Northeast and the Smart Tag used on the Dulles Toll Road in Northern Virginia, are often linked to individuals' credit-card accounts and are compiling ever more data about when and where specific drivers are traveling. Transit ``smart cards'' collect similar information about riders.
Cameras are increasingly being used to snap photos of cars that run red lights, evade tolls and speed. Closed-circuit television cameras for monitoring highway traffic continue to proliferate and, as their resolution improves, could be combined with an evolving technology that automatically matches individual occupants' faces to their driver's license pictures.
Automobile makers are introducing on-board navigation systems that allow vehicles to be tracked, and technology is evolving for monitoring the location of cell phones. Engineers predict that cars will soon be manufactured with embedded transmitters that allow them to be tracked.
A 1996 survey by Priscilla M. Regan, of George Mason University, found that Americans overwhelmingly preferred that high-tech transportation systems collect only anonymous information, such as overall traffic counts. They cautiously accepted the collection of some personally identifiable information, such as license-plate numbers, but objected to such measures as videotaping inside their cars. More than two-thirds were worried about who would see the information.
``If they start giving the information away for advertising or selling it, that bothers me,'' Chuck Stievenart, 39, of Fredericksburg, Va., said recently. ``We get enough junk already. Now I'll probably be on someone else's list for junk.''
Said Kimberly Hayek, 29, of Arlington, Va.: ``As a single woman, I have to worry. I have been stalked before. I figure I don't have any privacy. I don't like it.''
Some systems try to limit the amount of personally identifiable information they collect. For instance, Transcom, a traffic-management organization, has set up automated roadside readers in the New York area to track cars with E-ZPass tags. But tag numbers are scrambled so they cannot be traced to their owners.
Likewise, a representative of Mobiltrak, the Alabama company that developed the radio ``sniffer'' system, said its purpose is to take a random sample of passing cars and supply that general information to advertisers. He said the equipment does not determine specifically which vehicle is listening to which station. But in low-traffic areas, it could be easier to identify individual cars.
A third safeguard used by some systems is the practice of collecting data about large groups of vehicles rather than specific cars. Maryland and Virginia officials developing the program to track cell-phone use have said, for instance, they will simply follow the energy pattern generated by thousands of phones. They stressed that they would not be able to monitor phone calls or identify specific callers.
Some initiatives do not store the information at all. Transcom officials, for instance, collect E-ZPass readings to remain abreast of highway congestion but do not keep them.
But other transportation agencies do store personal information, especially those that bill travelers for using electronic payment such E-ZPass, Smart Tag and Chicago's I-Pass. These agencies assure their customers that the data is not provided or sold to businesses and only released under subpoena or court order except in emergencies.
Police have already turned to E-ZPass records several dozen times. In the most celebrated case, investigators probing the kidnapping of New Jersey millionaire Nelson Gross used E-ZPass information in 1997 to track his BMW across the George Washington Bridge. His car was found in Manhattan and his battered body was soon discovered nearby.
-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), October 08, 2000