Is The E-ZPass Box A Trojan Horse For Privacy Invasions?

It's only a matter of time before government realizes it can use existing technology to identify speeders

Every once in a while, the Internet rumor mongers start circulating claims that toll payment transponders can be used against tracked drivers for speeding.

So far, the rumors are simply rumors. But privacy experts warn that it's just a matter of time before some cash-strapped state looks at the giant pool of data E-ZPass, EZ TAG, FasTrak, I-Pass and other companies are collecting on drivers daily, and sees dollar signs.

"The concerns about E-ZPass tracking are certainly justified," said Daniel Solove, a professor at George Washington University Law School and author of Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security. "Current laws are ill-equipped to handle the issues."

In England, they use a series of cameras to track driver speeds. There are 1,100 cameras in 500 spots, reading vehicle registration numbers. Speeding offenders are tagged in the system, and their data is sent to police who then mail out speeding tickets.

In the wake of the biggest recession since the Great Depression, state and local governments are struggling to make ends meet. No one tracks how much revenue is made annually from speeding tickets, but it's estimated to be a multi-million dollar business. The National Motorists Association estimates that 25 million to 50 million speeding tickets are issued each year. Assuming each ticket costs $150, total revenue ranges from $3.75 billion to $7.5 billion annually.

Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electric Frontier Foundation, a consumer group that fights back against digital privacy incursions, said it's possible that governments could start relying on toll transponders to boost speeding ticket revenue. But it would be unpopular.

"Turning transponders into speeding ticket generators would create some backlash," he said.

But governments willing to endure the potential backlash stand to reap significant gains in this easy system of ticket issuance.

You're Already Being Tracked

By signing up for E-ZPass and other toll services, you're handing over your address, car registration information, and credit card digits in exchange for the ability to slow down minimally while driving through tolls. In the 14 states where E-ZPass operates, traffic has certainly freed up along toll roads, compared with 15 years ago when everyone had to stop to hand over their loose change. On busy weekends, tolls could add hours to a road trip.

The move to electronic tolling has also helped the environment, argues Frank McCartney, president of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, because there are fewer cars decelerating, accelerating and idling on the roads.

E-ZPass operates through its governing body, a consortium of 24 toll agencies in the 14 states that offer the technology. Almost 3/4 of all vehicles traveling through E-ZPass tolls use the little prepaid boxes.

Toll agencies already collect data from the transponders, but authorities say that data helps drivers. Authorities measure the speed of cars between E-ZPass readers to see how traffic is moving on some parts of the road. The data can tell drivers how long it will take to reach their destination or if there is traffic ahead.

"We're clocking to give people more information," said Judie Glave, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York.

Toll transponders have given up criminals, after police gleaned data from the trackers to follow drivers' steps. And since there are very few laws that keep states from using toll payment devices to issue speeding citations, it may just be a matter of time before tickets start arriving in drivers' mailboxes.

It's not mandatory to own an E-ZPass box, so people who feel the need to speed or commit other crimes could always opt to pay tolls the old-fashioned way.

Tom Levin, a Princeton professor specializing in media theory and surveillance, says Americans are already accustomed to giving up their rights when they fly. We hand over our private data for convenience all the time, he says.

"In Germany the default setting is: You can do nothing with my data unless I tell you otherwise," he says. "In the United States, the default setting is you can do everything with my data until I tell you otherwise."

Opting Out

Levin believes all the data collection is resulting in a data-driven police state. Data "is being gathered on your constantly, against your wishes," he said.

Beyond paying for tolls in cash, there are other ways to opt out. Texas offers an "unregistered" version of its TxTag, and E-ZPass On The Go can be purchased for cash, used like a normal E-ZPass but untraceable to your credit card information.

But people using credit cards, the Internet, or cellphones, needs to decide how much data they are comfortable sharing about themselves.

"What they're doing is testing how much you're willing to put up with," Levin said. "And if you're willing to put up with that form of invasiveness, it's trivial to move to the next stage."

Time will tell if the government thinks it's trivial to move from tracking traffic patterns with toll transponders to issuing speeding tickets with the same technology. AOL Autos will be watching.

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