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
    Ninja (profile), 13 Sep 2013 @ 8:04am

    Re: Re:

    I'm not familiar with those so I wouldn't know. I do have one installed in my car for 3 years now and never had to change it. If it's batteries then they are very durable! Still not a bad idea if it's possible.

    Here it would be tricky since the device is sort of "rented" to you (ie: not yours) so if you trample with it you may end up having to pay for it. I'm not sure how much it costs heh.

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