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Surveillance technology

As details of the National Security Agency (NSA) spying revelations come to light, I can’t help but think how ITS plays a role in the surveillance of our everyday lives. The other day I found out that in New York City license plates are read on some of the city’s bridges to catch oversized trucks. Well I’m sure the plates of everyone else crossing those bridges are also captured and stored on a computer somewhere. While the use of ALPR is routine in other countries, such as in the UK, it’s not as common on this side of the pond, so news of its use in NYC caught me unawares. That got me thinking about the different ways we’re watched in public while on the road. Please don’t get the idea that I’m the Edward Snowden of ITS, but if people knew how extensively they’re monitored by traffic authorities, I’d wager they’d be quite surprised as well.

Perhaps the poster children, if you will, of privacy concern on the road are red light and speed enforcement cameras. Usage of such devices has grown steadily as traffic enforcement officials have found them to be an effective means of deterring moving violations. Several recent studies, such as one conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in 2011, have confirmed that red light cameras do have a positive overall impact as right-angle collisions tend to drop in locations where one is installed. However, despite statistics largely proving their benefits to society, privacy rights advocates argue their personal privacy is infringed upon by these devices. While not nearly as intrusive as ALPR, your personal whereabouts are indeed noted somewhere if you’ve ever run a red light or driven over the posted speed limit.

Another ITS technology being scrutinized for privacy concerns is ETC. E-ZPass is used by millions of drivers in the USA, most of whom use the service as a way to breeze through tolls along bridges and highways. But what most people don’t know is that the technology is also being used to collect data on cars – and possibly their drivers. Recently, NYC’s DOT quietly began installing electronic devices at several busy intersections throughout the city, to record when cars equipped with E-ZPass transponders pass beneath. Although the agency claims they’re collecting ‘aggregate’ data, just how detailed the data collected is unknown and civil liberties advocates have already begun voicing their concerns.

Early in my career, circa 1972, I was involved in an Origin and Destination study in Manhattan. We captured license plates visually and sent postcards to car owners. This did lead to at least one divorce when a wife got the card that her husband was spotted crossing the George Washington Bridge when he told her he was elsewhere! While our intentions were innocent, our study had such unintended consequences that it is something I am always reminded of when contending with issues of privacy on the road.

There’s no question that ITS has improved our lives in countless ways from more efficient traffic networks to increased safety. But as surveillance technology has advanced over the years, we’ve also sacrificed much in regards to our ‘privacy in public’. It’s important as professionals in the field of ITS that we take a step back every once in a while and evaluate the impacts that such technology may have on our private lives.

 

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