E-ZPass, Smartphones, GPS-Tracking, And The End Of Privacy

September 16, 2013

Privacy ain't what it used to be.

Just a decade or so ago, most of us paled at the thought of sharing our phone numbers and addresses with corporations, knowing that an onslaught of junk mail and telemarketing calls would follow any slip-up.

Today, we distribute our contact info as freely as we'd hand out bland sheet cake at a six-year-old's birthday party. We have dozens of accounts for banking, shopping, and social media, most of which require our email addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information.

To be sure, the web has made our lives much easier. The internet and smartphones have allowed us to connect with friends and strangers in previously unimaginable ways. But there's a price to pay for all the info-sharing that we're doing. And in some parts of the country, folks are getting a preview of what privacy will look like later in the 21st century.


If you commute over a toll road or bridge, you probably have an E-ZPass (or something very much like it). Such devices use simple RFID technology to let drivers bypass booths and pay tolls on the go.

Last week, The Gothamist posted an article about an IT director in New York who'd hacked his E-ZPass to reveal when it was being read. As it turns out, the device wasn't just being scanned on toll roads, it was being read all over Midtown Manhattan.

City officials acknowledge that, yes, E-ZPasses are being scanned as part of a program to monitor and reduce traffic congestion in Manhattan. And that's not the only such project you'll find in NYC: there are other tracking systems in place, including one that photographs every vehicle that travels through the city's toll plazas, then stores those photographs for up to 45 days.

And don't think you're getting off easy if you don't have an E-ZPass or don't live in New York: as we mentioned a couple of months ago, licence plate-scanners are doing the same thing, tracking motorists in cities and towns across the U.S. -- and their databases aren't consistently cleaned out. Some records go back several years. 


Also in New York, the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission issued a whopping 22,000 citations to taxi drivers in fiscal year 2013. That's up from about 300 issued in 2009, or an increase of  7,233 percent.

What does that have to do with privacy? And why has there been such a huge jump in citations? Beginning in 2009, new regulations required hire cars in NYC to carry GPS trackers. So now, when customers complain that they were taken to the airport and charged the full toll rate instead of getting the E-ZPass discount, the TLC can look at its data records and say, "Yes, that cab went to the airport at that time, and no, it didn't have a the required E-ZPass, so the customer got charged the full toll."

And GPS locators aren't limited to cabs. Some of us willingly include similar devices on our personal vehicles through concierge systems like OnStar, anti-theft gadgets like LoJack, or via our insurance company (cf. Progressive Snapshot). How long until those gadgets become ubiquitous? Surely, it's just around the bend.


We already use our smartphones to keep track of things like airline boarding passes and frequent-shopper cards. But Portland, Oregon has become the latest metro area to launch a system that allows riders to pay for and manage public transportation tickets

That, of course, sets up a way for cities to track users as they move across town, thanks to the soon-to-be ubiquitous smartphone. And given that the National Security Agency can hack into most mobile devices, those tracking privileges extend to the feds, too. 

So, even if you don't have an E-ZPass or OnStar or even a car, Big Brother can find you if he really, really wants to.


The question is: will he want to?

We're not unduly concerned about the changing state of privacy. We understand that many of today's technologies bring huge benefits -- benefits that equal and sometimes outweigh privacy concerns. The phones we use to Face Time with friends and family, the websites that connect us not only with big-box stores, but also moms and pops and Etsy entrepreneurs around globe: these are only made possible by connected networks of users.

Besides, smartphones and OnStar seem like small potatoes compared to other, far-more-insidious snooping systems. If you really want to be concerned about privacy, consider the vast, closed-circuit TV networks found in the U.K. and elsewhere -- something that we in America haven't been exposed to (yet).

All we're saying is that our grandparents' idea of privacy and our grandchildren's idea of privacy are two very different things. With proper diligence, hopefully we can make the transition from one world to the other without instilling too much paranoia or becoming a surveillance state.


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