NYC Tracking E-ZPass Tags All Over The City, Without Telling Drivers

from the big-brother-is-watching dept

New York, and many states in the northeast and midwest, use an RFID toll-paying solution called E-ZPass (the system works in multiple states -- but not all, which is why, for example, you can't use the E-ZPass on California's Fastrak system). Ever since E-ZPass came into existence, some have expressed concerns that the tags would be used for tracking, rather than just for more convenient and efficient toll-paying. And, in fact, the toll-paying records have been used in a variety of legal cases, from catching an official who falsified time sheets to being used as evidence in divorce cases. But all of those still involved using the records at the actual tolls, where everyone knows the tags are being read.

However, it turns out that New York City has had an ongoing program to surreptitiously scan the tags in a variety of places supposedly for monitoring traffic. Indeed, you could see how that sort of traffic information might be useful, though these days with many other forms of traffic monitoring systems out there, it's probably a lot less necessary than before. But this was only discovered because a hacker going by the name Puking Monkey (one assumes this was not his given name) got suspicious and hacked up an E-ZPass to light up and make a sound whenever it was read. Then he drove around Manhattan, and voila, the tag kept going off:
As Kash Hill's article at Forbes notes, this has been going on for years, though, the various agencies involved have been rather quiet about it, and (perhaps most importantly) this type of usage does not appear to be disclosed in the terms and conditions for the E-ZPass. Oops.

The technology company that makes the devices insists that it's not being used for any surveillance:
“The tag ID is scrambled to make it anonymous. The scrambled ID is held in dynamic memory for several minutes to compare with other sightings from other readers strategically placed for the purpose of measuring travel times which are then averaged to develop an understanding of traffic conditions,” says TransCore spokesperson Barbara Catlin by email. “Travel times are used to estimate average speeds for general traveler information and performance metrics. Tag sightings (reads) age off the system after several minutes or after they are paired and are not stored because they are of no value. Hence the system cannot identify the tag user and does not keep any record of the tag sightings.”
Of course, even if that is true today, that doesn't mean it will always be true. We're already well aware of how the NYPD is known for the extreme lengths it will go in terms of surveillance, including the fact that it's set up its own intelligence division that many say rivals the intelligence operations of entire nations. Since the folks behind E-ZPass didn't seem to think it was necessary to tell people that their devices would be used for traffic monitoring, how likely is it that anyone would be told if it was used for surveillance as well?
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Filed Under: e-zpass, nyc, rfid, tolls, tracking, traffic

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  1. icon
    aldestrawk (profile), 13 Sep 2013 @ 12:48pm


    Ah, here it is:

    "The Metropolitan Transportation Commission/511 operates a data collection system based on FasTrak toll tags to provide better information about the transportation network to Bay Area travelers, transportation managers, and transportation planners through its 511 Driving TimesSM service. To ensure that FasTrak users remain anonymous, encryption software is used to scramble each FasTrak toll tag ID number before any other processing happens. In addition, the encrypted toll tag ID numbers are retained for no longer than 24 hours and are then discarded. If you do not want your toll tag read for these purposes, place the toll tag in the special Mylar bag provided to you when you are not using it for payment of tolls at a toll plaza. The Mylar bags can be requested from the Customer Service Center. If you would like additional information about 511 Driving TimesSM and how toll tag data is protected, please visit"

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