Documents published Wednesday shed new light on how city and state transportation officials have been using the E-ZPass tags for at least four years to collect location information from unsuspecting drivers as part of ongoing studies on traffic congestion.
A lawyer with the New York Civil Liberties Union said there are few provisions in place that govern how this information is used, and that the studies could amount to a surveillance network.
"Most people probably didn't know their E-ZPass reader is being read away from toll plazas, which is why they enrolled in the service," said Mariko Hirose, a staff attorney at the NYCLU, who uncovered the scope of the programs through public-records requests and mapped the location of E-ZPass readers. "If the government is going to set up something like this, they should make sure people know it's happening and give them a choice to opt out."
Drivers don't have that choice. In most cases, they're unaware information on their whereabouts is even being collected beyond toll booths, and neither state nor city departments have opt-out procedures in place.
Meanwhile, the number of E-ZPass readers installed away from toll booths has proliferated. In August 2013, 43 of these electronic machines generated an average of 250,000 records on completed travel times every day in New York City alone. By July 2014, there were 149 E-ZPass readers positioned around the city.
Both the city and state say identifying information is scrambled. State officials say they conduct their program by "a fundamental principle that the system is to be used for traffic management purposes only." City DOT spokesperson Bonnie Tsang says, "DOT takes our responsibility to protect privacy seriously and these readers are only used to gather traffic information so that we can improve mobility in the city."
But Hiroshe said there are inadequate privacy protections in place. She said most motorists have no idea these readers are gathered away from tolls and bridges, and that city officials do not have policies that govern how data is used or how long it may be retained.
"That's very troubling," she said.
Whether collected by in-car navigation systems or license-plate readers used by law enforcement and private companies, location data is increasingly harvested from motorists. With enough of these records collected over time, the government or other third parties can assemble an accurate picture of a motorists' daily habits and whereabouts or determine sensitive information, such as where they attend worship services or political events. Privacy advocates have warned about the lack of privacy and transparency standards that regulate the use and retention of these records.
Last month, police officials in New York asked the city to approve a three-year, $442,500 contract with Vigilant Solutions, a license-plate reader company that has recorded more than 2.2 billion plate records across the country.
E-ZPass is an electronic toll-collection system that is operated by 26 toll agencies in 15 states. By keeping an electronic token in their car, motorists who sign up for E-ZPass can skip lengthy lines at toll booths and instead have their tokens read by electronic readers. Drivers are billed later for tolls incurred. E-ZPass Group, which operates the program, says it has 28 million users.
Role In Law Enforcement Unclear
Law-enforcement officials tell the NYCLU they do not "operate" any E-ZPass readers, though it was unclear whether police had accessed information collected by transportation agencies for investigative purposes. State officials said information collected for their TRANSMIT program "was not for any law enforcement purposes," according to documents. Records released by city officials did not address the scope of potential police involvement.
In the documents, city transportation officials say the "Midtown in Motion" program helps engineers detect "traffic choke points" in real time. State officials say the TRANSMIT program uses the E-ZPass readers as "anonymous probes" for determining travel times and detecting incidents on state highways.
In a written statement, Dan Weiller, spokesperson for the Thruway Authority acknowledges the agency has equipment that collects location information from E-ZPass tags, but says, "E-ZPass tag ID numbers are scrambled and only a record of the trip by an anonymous vehicle is stored. Individual vehicle information is not stored and the scrambled tag information is deleted after the vehicle has left the highway."
The NYCLU first started researching the use of E-ZPass readers beyond toll-collection purposes in 2013. Driving around New York City with a device that detected signals on the same frequency used by E-ZPass readers, they found signals even though they were far away from toll booths. In an area in midtown Manhattan, they found signals continuously for several blocks.
The NYCLU obtained dozens of records that shed light on the programs via multiple public-records requests that, in part, helped map the location of these E-ZPass readers. Responses from the state, city and regional authorities are available on the organization's website.
"What we really wanted to do was obtain this information and release it to the public, so they can understand what's happening and evaluate the situation for themselves," Hiroshe said. "We encourage people to speak up and let legislators know they care about privacy in emerging technologies that collect data on people."