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511 Driving Times: society just keeps getting more transparent...

FasTrak transponders are going to be used to collect data on driving times: basically, they'll silently ping your transponder for its ID, and see how long it took you to get from point A to point B. They claim that they hash the ID first, and that this hash is not reversible; however, it's still a uniquely-identifying cookie, since they need to know when they've seen you again.

They seem to say that your ID will hash differently after 24 hours. Their privacy policy says that they flush their logs every night, and that they promise not to use this for issuing tickets -- but of course we all know that all such privacy policies end with an implicit, "until such time as we get a subpoena." Plus, thanks to the so-called "Patriot" act, Fatherland Security doesn't even need to bother with those pesky subpoenas.

They claim that if you wear a tinfoil hat -- sorry, I meant to say, "put your transponder in a Mylar bag" -- you will be immune.

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511 Driving Times

511 Driving Times will give current driving times on Bay Area freeways between any two cities or major landmarks, through the 511 telephone number or the 511.org web site. This information will let drivers know how long it will take to drive through a backup, when they will reach their destination, or whether they will be late to work or home on a heavy traffic day. [...]

MTC has installed small antennas over freeways to read FasTrak toll tags (the small, credit card-sized device typically installed on car windshields). When a car with a FasTrak toll tag drives by an antenna, the system detects the presence of the toll tag. Unlike the antennas at the toll plazas, the antennas installed for 511 will not cause the toll tags to beep, so there will be no annoying noises for drivers. The 511 system immediately scrambles the toll tag's identification number in order to protect personal privacy. When that car passes the next 511 antenna, the system again detects the toll tag, and again scrambles it, using the same process. By averaging the travel times of all vehicles over a certain period, the system can calculate the average travel time and speed. [...]

MTC and Caltrans both guarantee that FasTrak users will remain anonymous. Encryption software scrambles each FasTrak toll tag ID number before any other processing happens; the set of scrambled IDs are discarded every day; and the encryption code is changed every day. No historical database of the encrypted IDs is maintained. No one involved in 511 will ever have access to the FasTrak ID number or any personal information related to the toll tag. None of the information collected for 511 Driving Times can ever be associated with a specific FasTrak account. Because of these protections, there is no way that 511 could be used to issue traffic tickets or otherwise "track" users. [...]

If you are uncomfortable with participating in the 511 Driving Times service, FasTrak will provide you with a Mylar bag. [...] When you insert your FasTrak toll tag into this bag, it cannot be read by the 511 antennas. However, you will need to take your FasTrak toll tag out of its bag to be read at toll plazas.

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11 Responses:

  1. tfofurn says:

    How is this worse than license plate OCR? They could do the same thing with two cameras and no transponders.

    • jwz says:

      License plate OCR sounds a lot harder (more expensive and less reliable) to me.

      But more to the point, are they actually doing wide-scale license plate OCR? Because they're doing this.

      • waider says:

        My brother's in the business. The software's pretty damned effective, and from his occasional mentions of which part of the world (not just the US) he's been in lately, it's pretty wide-scale. The same company pretty much has vehicle surveillance in the UK sown up, too, including the recently-implemented and much-touted congestion charge system in London.

      • tfofurn says:

        London is doing license plate OCR to assess a congestion charge. They call it "Automatic Number Plate Recognition".

      • baconmonkey says:

        yes, they are reading license plates.
        the bay area bridges are being fitted with cameras to do that.
        Jiffy Lube already has cameras that identify your plates.
        you know why there was a whole glut of ticketing for missing front license plates? for this very reason.
        identifying plates is trivial compared to generalized no-training-required voice recognition, which is pretty widespread.

        Minneapolis had plain sensors that tracked average vehicle speed in certain zones of freeway. you could go online and see an overview image on the freeway system with color coded chunks of freeway representing how fast traffic was moving. no special tags needed.

        • ilcylic says:

          I'm so happy that SF decided to shoot photos of front plates, since I don't have one, and since New Mexico doesn't issue them, I'm immune from tickets for not having one, either. Means the autocameras can't get me.

          I'm the gingerbread man.


          • jlindquist says:

            Depends on the setup. They can find you in Colorado. My sister's front (Illinois) got knocked off a while back while parked on the CSU campus. A couple of weeks ago, my dad got a photo radar ticket in the mail, showing her smiling mug through the windshield, with the lack of a plate clearly visible, yet the correct plate number is written on the side of the image in magic marker. They must be using a second camera somewhere to catch the rear plate.

            They're real sleazy about those tickets too. They tell you that as long as it's for less than fifteen over the limit, if you pay it right away and don't make them come after you, it won't be reported onto your record. This reeks of "revenue generation".

      • macguyver says:

        Highway 407 in Toronto has a license plate detection system for tolls. Without a transponder, it'll mail you a bill based on your plate number.


      • jlindquist says:

        In traffic, dunno. But the short-term parking lots at O'Hare use it. The droid has your parking charge already up on the screen before you can hand him the ticket at the exit.

        Deployed on expressway entrances, it just begs to be messed with...

  2. js7a says:

    Firstly, mad scientists spotted in skies over Hawaii.

    More on topic, while oddly related, people are being kept from air travel because of bugs in the SOUNDEX algorithm.

    This just in: Bruce Sterling apparently agrees that DARPA could use some improved management.

  3. mkay422 says:

    FYI - sample license plate OCR systems should have been already deployed by CALTRANS to the best of my knowledge. About 4 years ago CALTRANS had been funding a study about driving times; the OCR stuff had been part of that project. Another project they've been funding is the study of driver behaviour - the unmarked van equipped with cameras, etc. had to follow randomly chosen cars for some time, recording the patterns of speed and lane change.