Chris Christie, Port Authority Official Abused E-ZPass Data For Their Own Ends

from the just-some-harmless-toll-data,-right? dept

What data is harmless in the hands of the government? Apparently, not much. Case in point: the data collected by E-ZPass transponders. While the system helps alleviate traffic congestion, it also tracks drivers’ movements. If you thought it just triggered toll payments, you’re drastically underestimating the government’s desire for data.

Back in 2013, Mike covered one NYC driver’s experience with his E-ZPass device, finding it was triggered all over the city — not just on toll roads. The company claimed the signal was scrambled and travel data collected in aggregate. Whether or not that remains true is open for debate, but even the data collected where drivers are expecting data collection can be revealing. E-ZPass data has been used in divorce cases to prove a spouse’s whereabouts as well as against a city official, who falsified time sheets.

It’s also been used in political fights to disparage opponents. The IBTimes reports that two New Jersey government officials obtained Senator Frank Lautenberg’s EZPass records and used them as political fodder in a battle over toll increases.

“Respectfully, Senator, you only started paying tolls recently,” [Port Authority Deputy Chief Bill] Baroni said, according to a transcript of the exchange. “In fact, I have a copy of your free E-ZPass,” he continued, holding up a physical copy of the toll pass Lautenberg had received as a benefit from his tenure as a Port Authority commissioner. “You took 284 trips for free in the last 2 years you had a pass.”

Governor Chris Christie himself disclosed further information about Lautenberg’s driving habits.

At a press conference, he alleged that the senator didn’t “pay for parking at Port Authority facilities” and said Lautenberg went “through the tunnel to New York three or four times a week in 2005 and 2006.”

I find it interesting, too, by the way, in 2005 and 2006, that he went over the Hudson River 284 times. Where was he going?… I think he needs to answer that. ‘Cause he’s supposed to be the senator from New Jersey. So what’s he doing going over the bridge or through the tunnel to New York three or four times a week for 2005 and 2006?… Did he ever spend any time in New Jersey?

Obviously, this is an abuse of government-collected data. Bill Baroni admitted during the 2013 Bridgegate scandal investigation that he possessed driving data on those interrogating him. To add insult to injury, the governor’s office claimed it had no records on Lautenberg’s driving habits in response to IBTimes’ 2012 open records request — the same records he used to criticize Lautenberg in an earlier press conference.

The ACLU points out that not only is this a misuse of private records, but this sort of situation is completely avoidable.

EZ Pass and other electronic toll booth systems should have the option for anonymous use, where money on the devices is treated like cash, for users who prefer privacy to the convenience of having named accounts. A driver, in other words, should be able to buy a transponder for cash, and use cash to store and re-load value on it. The Washington DC Metro system, for example, offers this option for users of its contactless transit passes.

Obviously, whatever protections the state of New Jersey affords these data are inadequate. Sure, driving in public isn’t necessarily private, but the use of travel data to attack political opponents is still an abuse of state-collected data. Supposedly, the data is exempt from public record laws, which locks citizens out of acquiring the data without a subpoena. But nothing’s stopping the Port Authority from using it for its own political ends and passing it on to the governor to do the same.

Driving on public roads may not be private, but there’s a lot that can be ascertained about a person simply by looking at this data — information that could only otherwise be acquired by nonstop physical “tailing.” When collected and stored, it runs the risk of being abused. The Port Authority already grants police open access to the records (limited only to “purposes of discharging their duties,” whatever that actually means in practice) and has shown its willingness to puts its self-interest ahead of state law when it comes to disseminating this information. Better policies and practices are in order, and Governor Chris Christie should be waist deep in investigators (a belated call for a DOJ investigation of Christie and Baroni has been issued by NJ Congressman Frank Palone) rather than considering a 2016 presidential run.

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Comments on “Chris Christie, Port Authority Official Abused E-ZPass Data For Their Own Ends”

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Ninja (profile) says:

I find it interesting, too, by the way, in 2005 and 2006, that he went over the Hudson River 284 times. Where was he going?… I think he needs to answer that.

Who cares? Maybe he was dating some chick? Or there’s a restaurant he likes to visit there? His old grandma lives there? He appreciates going through the goddamn bridge? You may question the fact that he didn’t pay but why he crossed the bridge or where he was going? It’s none of your business.

And they say metadata is harmless. It’s freaking open to interpretation because only the driver knows why he drove to a place and why he used a determined route. With enough imagination and some cross reference from law enforcement you can probably associate anybody with some meth dealer.

Next time you hear that ask the idiot proposing it to share the entirety of his metadata. I bet my balls none of the surveillance-happy crew will hand it all.

retrogamer (profile) says:

Just an aside, for those who don’t know, David Sirota has been doing excellent reporting on abuses by the Christie administration for awhile now (he also broke the pension quid pro quo scheme and was one of the first to report on Bridgegate). This reporting may have even cost him his job at Pando –

I started reading because of this (and quit reading Pando), Sirota is one of the few old school, pit bull journalists left with a job.

scotts13 (profile) says:

I told you so...

I’ve been criticized by friends for years for not having E-Z pass; they said the system would never be used to gather data that was used against someone. (Yes, I know there are cameras, probably reading plates, at every exit – but why make it easy on them). Turns out I was right, in the nastiest possible way.

Forget internet rule 34. Formulate rule 666 – ANY data, however collected and safeguarded, will eventually cause trouble.

Anonymous Coward says:

I cannot understand how we got here

How did a country founded on freedom get to the point we are at? Every level of government, from local police, to the mayors office, to governors, the federal government and the 3 letter agencies are tracking everything anyone does whether it is with a cell phone, toll pass, credit card, tag readers, social media and who knows what else. How did we get here? Why is nothing being done about it?

Anonymous Coward says:

the horror of rental cars

People who get a rental car are rarely told that these kind of tracking devices are installed in the car and turned on.

Besides the obvious privacy issues, another big problem is that going through the cash payment lines in highway toll stations and paying with cash will still trigger the device and therefore force you to pay the same toll a second time.

Then you must go through the hassle of trying to get your money back for the toll payments that were automatically charged to your account at the same time you were dropping quarters in the basket, and then trying in vain to prove you already paid in cash without having any receipts to show as evidence (because those cash-drop toll booths don’t give receipts).

Anonymous Coward says:

I find it interesting, too, by the way, in 2005 and 2006, that he went over the Hudson River 284 times. Where was he going?… I think he needs to answer that. ‘Cause he’s supposed to be the senator from New Jersey. So what’s he doing going over the bridge or through the tunnel to New York three or four times a week for 2005 and 2006?… Did he ever spend any time in New Jersey?

So why was governor Chris Christie in Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ box during the playoffs? I think he needs to answer that ’cause he’s supposed to be the governor of New Jersey.

AnonCow says:

How is the accessing of government data by a government employee for non-governmental or personal use legal? Cops and DMV employees are routinely terminated for accessing DMV records. Same goes for nurses and doctors. Why are there people exempt? Doesn’t Lautenberg have grounds for a massive lawsuit against the State of New Jersey along with these individuals?

David says:

What's wrong with this country?

I find it interesting, too, by the way, in 2005 and 2006, that he went over the Hudson River 284 times. Where was he going?… I think he needs to answer that. ‘Cause he’s supposed to be the senator from New Jersey. So what’s he doing going over the bridge or through the tunnel to New York three or four times a week for 2005 and 2006?… Did he ever spend any time in New Jersey?

How can anyone in the U.S.A. nowadays can hope to gain votes with this kind of tripe?

How can any voter react in any manner but “I don’t need to know why your opponent went over the Hudson 284 times. I just need to know that you’ll leave over the Hudson because we have voted you out of your office. Actually preferably on your way to prison because you boasted violating the Fourth Amendment.”

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: What's wrong with this country?

Sadly, you grossly underestimate just how well mudslinging works.

While it would be nice if the public at large had some self-respect, and was actually offended by blatant lawbreaking and contempt for the constitution, more often than not the guilty party can spin that for them(‘Do you want criminals to get away with their crimes? Only criminals would object to the proposed changes to the law meant to catch them!’), and gain votes because of it.

It’s beyond easy to slam someone who dares to defend the rights of the public, as no-one wants to be on the side of ‘criminals’, and since anything that hampers the government and/or police(like those pesky ‘laws’ and ‘rights’) is clearly designed for no other purpose than aiding criminals, it follows that to oppose anything that the government or police does, is to be in favor of criminals(according to idiot voter/politicians/police logic anyway).

So clearly, defending the Constitutional rights of the public is nothing short of showing complete support for criminals, and anyone who claims otherwise is just trying to hide their support for lawbreakers. /poe

Anonymous Coward says:

>A driver, in other words, should be able to buy a
>transponder for cash, and use cash to store and re-load
>value on it. The Washington DC Metro system, for example,
>offers this option for users of its contactless transit

Paying cash would not help you not be tracked in DC. Each of those cards are tied to a unique ID. They have to be to track which station you enter and leave so they can bill the account appropriately. There are cameras everywhere in the Metro System. It wouldn’t take much to link a cash customer to a card from camera data and travel patterns.

You might stand a better chance in NYC where the cards expire and you need to get new ones every so often.

mcinsand (profile) says:

as a matter of coincidence

Last night, I visited with my 90 year old great aunt (finally got her to stop using IE!). She was reminiscing about being treasurer for a local car dealership, and the IRS was conducting an audit for a filing that occurred two years before the audit. The agent then asked to see a file on a recent sales month. My great aunt refused and then he started to get aggressive. So, she picked up the phone to call his office. He turned white as a sheet and then begged her to not call. What he was after was to look and see if one of his colleagues had actually gotten as good of a deal as he claimed to have gotten. To rephrase, what he was doing was using his official status as a way to gather personal information. Back then, that would get you fired. Apparently, today that sort of abuse will get you elected.

Nastybutler77 (profile) says:

I guess I'm in the minority here.

I don’t see why everyone is up in arms about an official possibly abusing a government perk. How is this any different than calling out an official for misuse of a taxpayer funded credit card? Your boss gets a statement every month on your company credit card, so big deal. If you don’t want to be held accountable, then leave your free EZ pass behind and pay the toll out of your own pocket.

I have no problem with this. As long as it wasn’t an EZ Pass he paid for himself.

Calm down everyone and loosen the tinfoil a bit. 😉

DB (profile) says:

I can see why those records, at least in aggregate, should be available on a device that was issued as a job benefit.

I don’t see why the record detail should be public information. If a ‘comp’ed EZPass is a issued to commissioners, and there isn’t a restriction on its use (e.g. “for official use only” or “only for Port Authority business”), then there isn’t a reason to make anything but the total use public information.

From the level of detail revealed, it’s clear that whoever was searching the records was looking for dirt to use politically — which puts this firmly into abuse of privacy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mike, your theory on a cash based “anonymous” e-z pass is missing an obvious flaw. Every lane at a toll exchange has camera’s capable of take a picture of the plate of the car going through it. The camera’s currently take pictures of cars which go through without paying. They may take pictures of EVERY car and plate going through, with time stamp of course. Using the plate recognition software, tracking with the EZpass is redundant.

Anonymous Coward says:

I despise automated license plate scanners that track your movements. You can get around without E-ZPass, but you can’t get around automated license plate scanners. Unless your willing to modify your car with a license plate flipping mechanism and take the legal risks that come with such modifications.

It’s sad when you have to break the law in order to have any privacy. People can’t even ride Amtrak without showing ID. If you want legal privacy, you either have to walk or ride a bike. Maybe you can still take a bus without providing ID, I dunno.

Anonymous Coward says:

I just had a better idea. Instead of a license plate flipping device. Simply encase the license plate in auto tinting plastic or glass. When an electrical current is supplied, the license plate cover auto tints black. Flip the switch to off, the electrical current stops and the cover becomes clear again.

I would have never thought of such ideas, if not for my privacy being violated on a daily basis. I have no desire to commit crimes. Other than the crime of protecting my privacy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

This is a commercial site, but I’m not advertising… they just have a broader range of products in one place than most other smart-glass vendors. I knew about electrochromic glass, but wasn’t aware that one could get adhesive films and laminates as well.

The main problem seems to be that these materials are default opaque, going clear only with an electric current. Defaulting to “privacy” during a power interruption is good for, say, the windows of a house. Not so good for a license plate cover.

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