Big Brother Is Already Watching Your Driving “¦ And It’s Your Fault

National Journal
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Aug. 12, 2014, 1:11 a.m.

It has long been a night­mare scen­ario for pri­vacy ad­voc­ates: Every time you get in your car, a com­puter re­lays your loc­a­tion and tracks your trip from start to fin­ish. It can track how far you go, where you drive, how long the trip is, and even how much traffic you en­counter.

Tech­no­logy has made that scen­ario a real­ity — one drivers seem widely will­ing to em­brace. Urb­an­ites are flock­ing to ride-shar­ing pro­grams such as Zip­car or Car2Go, even though both ser­vices can see where their cars and users are. Even private-vehicle drivers have ad­op­ted E-ZPasses, which speed them through tolls but also cre­ate an elec­tron­ic re­cord of their toll­way trips.

Now, urb­an plan­ners hope pub­lic ac­cept­ance of track­ing will al­low them to ad­dress one of trans­port­a­tion policy’s most press­ing prob­lems: how to fund roads and high­ways.

For dec­ades, high­way and road main­ten­ance was fun­ded by a gas tax. But that rev­en­ue has dropped as cars have grown more fuel-ef­fi­cient and the tax has stayed stag­nant, leav­ing high­ways short on fund­ing. A tax on use, rather than gas con­sumed, could close that short­fall, ad­voc­ates say.

Un­der such a sys­tem, drivers would simply be charged for every mile driv­en (or some equi­val­ent). The tax would charge roads’ biggest users the most, lev­el­ing the play­ing field between fuel-ef­fi­cient cars and gas guzz­lers. It’s also an easy way to ac­count for use by the hy­brid and elec­tric cars that are passing up gas pumps — and it could even al­le­vi­ate con­ges­tion by char­ging drivers ex­tra fees for driv­ing in­to con­ges­tion.

A vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) fee, however, would re­quire track­ing drivers’ move­ments, and the as­so­ci­ated pri­vacy con­cerns have been enough to kill any such pro­pos­als.

When Ray La­Hood, Pres­id­ent Obama’s first-term Trans­port­a­tion sec­ret­ary, floated the pro­pos­al in early 2009, the ad­min­is­tra­tion hast­ily walked it back, say­ing it was off the table. And con­gres­sion­al sup­port has been mild — even a pro­pos­al to re­search a VMT sys­tem didn’t make the fi­nal ver­sion of the 2012 trans­port­a­tion reau­thor­iz­a­tion bill.

But VMT pro­ponents say the pri­vacy con­cerns are un­foun­ded, es­pe­cially in the era of big data.

“Lo­gic has not really entered in­to that dis­cus­sion,” said Joshua Schank, pres­id­ent of the Eno Cen­ter for Trans­port­a­tion. “People have had cell phones and private cell com­pan­ies know­ing where they travel for years, but some­how that doesn’t give them any more com­fort if the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is go­ing to track their driv­ing.”

And loc­a­tion track­ing has moved bey­ond the smart­phone to the dash­board.

Private com­pan­ies have done plenty to al­low their drivers to be loc­ated, es­pe­cially as car-shar­ing mod­els have dis­rup­ted tra­di­tion­al fam­ily car own­er­ship. Take, for in­stance, the pop­u­lar Car2Go car-shar­ing sys­tem, which of­fers Smart cars in 26 cit­ies world­wide. Rides are tracked with con­nec­tions to in­tern­al sys­tems for loc­a­tion, speed, travel times, and oth­er in­form­a­tion for use on in­voices, check­ing to keep cars with­in a re­ser­va­tion area and pre­vent fraud, ac­cord­ing to the ser­vice’s pri­vacy policy. The start and fin­ish of each trip is also stored on in­voices.

Zip­car sim­il­arly has on-board mon­it­or­ing for its cus­tom­ers — ac­cord­ing to its pri­vacy policy, the lat­it­ude and lon­git­ude of Zip­cars is “trans­mit­ted to Zip­car and tem­por­ar­ily stored (in­clud­ing while it is hired to you)” so that em­ploy­ees can provide road­side as­sist­ance, en­sure it is re­stored to the right place, and loc­ate lost cars. The policy says Zip­car does “not act­ively track or mon­it­or vehicle loc­a­tion, and we do not story his­tor­ic­al GPS data re­gard­ing vehicle loc­a­tion.”

Uber, the ride­share and taxi ser­vice, like­wise uses GPS and geo­loca­tion through its mo­bile app to see where users and drivers are, but its pri­vacy policy says the data is not shared with third parties and is used only for pur­poses like cus­tom­iz­ing ser­vices, pro­mo­tions, and data ana­lyt­ics.

“There’s really a lot less pri­vacy with those sys­tems be­cause they know at least where you are picked up and dropped off and someone’s keep­ing track of that,” said Rob Atkin­son, pres­id­ent of the In­form­a­tion Tech­no­logy and In­nov­a­tion Found­a­tion. “I have no reas­on to doubt that these com­pan­ies are trust­worthy and it’s pos­sible that as people be­come more com­fort­able with that, they’ll see that there are less pri­vacy con­cerns.”

Even the private cars that those com­pan­ies are look­ing to re­place have a de­gree of mon­it­or­ing. Elec­tric cars like the Nis­san Leaf and the Chev­ro­let Volt have be­come data sources for car com­pan­ies and oth­ers look­ing for stats on how clean cars are used. The EV Pro­ject — backed by the En­ergy De­part­ment, Nis­san, Chev­ro­let, and oth­ers — of­fers up free char­gers in ex­change for per­mis­sion to col­lect data on vehicle use, char­ging pat­terns, and en­ergy use.

They’ve even be­come a badge of hon­or for some drivers — the web­site Volt Stats lets drivers up­load their en­gine use data, en­abling a not-so-subtle com­pet­i­tion to see who can drive the farthest with the least gas­ol­ine.

Demo­crat­ic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Ore­gon, a long­time VMT sup­port­er, has even poin­ted to E-ZPass toll sys­tems and traffic cam­er­as as proof that the pri­vacy con­cerns are over­blown.

“I don’t think that means we should be any less con­cerned about the gov­ern­ment do­ing something like this,” said Gau­tum Hans, an at­tor­ney with the Cen­ter for Demo­cracy and Tech­no­logy.

Hans said that in­di­vidu­als may be more com­fort­able with a private com­pany us­ing loc­a­tion track­ing for busi­ness or re­search use — “as we like to say, a private com­pany can’t put you in jail,” he said — but even that may be lessen­ing amid the out­cry over re­search pro­jects done by Face­book and OK Cu­pid. And there are par­tic­u­lar con­cerns that come with the po­ten­tial for the gov­ern­ment to watch where and when cit­izens are driv­ing.

“Re­search is un­der­stood by in­di­vidu­als. You can un­der­stand why a ride-shar­ing app would want to do re­search as long as its ag­greg­ated and takes steps to pro­tect your pri­vacy,” Hans said. “With the gov­ern­ment, there are reas­ons you would be con­cerned, wheth­er it’s the First Amend­ment and the free­dom of as­so­ci­ation or how the in­form­a­tion is kept and how.”

“It seems odd to me that there would be a solu­tion that is so ex­pens­ive and car­ries so many ques­tions,” he ad­ded.

It’s still an open ques­tion what sort of tech­no­logy would be em­ployed with a VMT. A pi­lot pro­gram in Ore­gon of­fers the 5,000 vo­lun­teer par­ti­cipants a vari­ety of op­tions, in­clud­ing a smart­phone app, self-bought GPS sys­tems, or even a flat fee that would re­quire no track­ing at all. Ex­perts say a “black box” is un­likely — it’s ex­pec­ted that, at most, the sys­tem would rely on a one-way GPS sys­tem that simply re­layed the dis­tance traveled to al­le­vi­ate the big­ger driv­ing con­cerns.

For Atkin­son, who chaired a fed­er­al com­mis­sion that re­com­men­ded a VMT sys­tem in 2009, said that he sees “move­ment” to­ward a VMT, with sup­port grow­ing among con­ser­vat­ives and en­vir­on­ment­al­ists alike for a more equit­able trans­port­a­tion fund­ing sys­tem.

“A full-steam-ahead ef­fort to de­vel­op a stand­ard, man­dat­ing every car comes equipped with an on-board GPS, that’s go­ing to be a while,” he said. “As cars be­come smarter, you’ll end up with more that have the cap­ab­il­ity to do this. I think if you start with a vol­un­tary sys­tem, you’ll see it grow.”

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