Am I paranoid?
Thu, 21 Dec 2000 06:54:43 -0800 (PST)
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Sarkis Detective Agency
'Big Brother' Could Soon Ride Along in Back Seat
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
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
help 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 at 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 ability 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
and locate witnesses, and they provide businesses with immensely
profitable ways to reach prospective customers.
Electronic toll programs, such as E-ZPass in the Northeast and the Dulles
Toll Road's Smart Tag, 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
Cameras are increasingly being used to snap photos of cars that run red
lights, evade paying 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
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.
The growing number of high-tech systems for tracking vehicles and
archiving information about their travel patterns "is unwittingly bringing
us closer than ever to the Orwellian vision of the ever-present Big
Brother," wrote analysts Bruce Abernethy and Andrew Kolcz in a recent
cover story for Traffic Technology International.
"It's an issue of great concern," said Larry Leibowitz, chief executive of
Inductive Signature Technologies, who will be chairing a panel on privacy
this month sponsored by the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.
"It gives the government the ability to tell where you're sitting at
He said people should be concerned about whether their records would be
subpoenaed in divorce and other lawsuits, and about whether this
information would be exploited by overzealous police.
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: "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."
The agencies and companies behind these high-tech systems say they use a
range of safeguards, including letting travelers choose whether to
participate. In San Antonio, for example, 53 automated readers arrayed
along city streets follow the progress of 60,000 cars with transponders.
All the motorists are volunteers.
Both officials of the Dulles Toll Road and the agencies that offer E-ZPass
used on highways, bridges and tunnels in six states from Massachusetts to
West Virginia – say travelers can choose not to buy the tag and instead
pay cash at tollbooths.
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 spokesman for 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 tuned into
which station. But in low-traffic areas, it could be easier to identify
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 will 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 as
E-ZPass, Smart Tag and Chicago's I-Pass, as well as Metro's smart card.
These agencies assure their customers that the data are not provided or
sold to businesses and only released under subpoena or court order except
Police have turned to E-ZPass records several dozen times. In the most
celebrated case, investigators probing the kidnapping of New Jersey
millionaire Nelson Gross, a former state Republican chairman, 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
Agencies and companies developing these high-tech systems have repeatedly
guaranteed that measures for easing traffic will not be merged with those
for policing, such as red-light cameras and photo enforcement of
speed limits. They fear motorists will reject programs such as electronic
toll systems and traffic cameras if they believe these will be used to
Indeed, the deployment of red-light cameras, for instance, has met with
decidedly mixed reviews, including in Virginia. Gov. James S. Gilmore
III(R) cited privacy concerns in vetoing a bill that would have expanded
their use beyond Arlington and Fairfax counties.
The trepidation is not universal. "It's not like they're getting your DNA
or your medical records. You're in your car, and you're in public," said
Chris Wingo, 28, of Northwest Washington.
Others want a say over how the information is used. "There's so many
unknowns with this new burst of the information age," said Leslie Honing,
35, of Arlington. "I feel like I need some control over that."
Privacy advocates insist that Congress set some legal parameters.
Regan, of GMU, said laws alone are not enough. Limits on collecting and
archiving individual information must be built into the systems
"Once you've collected the information, you're continually trying to keep
it under wraps, and there's constant pressure to let it out."
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