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."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.
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?
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.