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Car trackers drive some to distraction

San Antonio Express-News | April 8, 2005
By L.A. Lorek

With the help of a dime-size adhesive tag on a vehicle's windshield and cutting-edge technology that detractors equate with Big Brother, police soon could track Texas cars and trucks — if a legislator's bill makes it into law.
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Texas Bill Would Require Transponders in All Cars

Though the bill hasn't made it out of the Texas House of Representatives' Transportation Committee, it already has generated outrage among technophiles and privacy advocates who believe the technology, once introduced, will creep into other law enforcement areas.

"Why don't they just tag us like cattle and be done with it?" said Scott Henson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Texas police accountability project in Austin.

House Bill 2893 calls for the state to use radio frequency identification devices, or RFID, for auto-insurance enforcement.

The bill excludes other law enforcement use, but privacy experts say it does little to protect personal rights.

"It's overkill, in my opinion," said Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based nonprofit advocacy group.

The tags, which can be attached to just about anything, contain antennae that transmit data to be read by a receiver up to 25 feet away.

It's unclear whether the bill, which has not had a committee hearing, can pass.

Bill sponsor Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, thinks it's a good idea to look at the technology and decide whether it can help law enforcement do a better job and also protect privacy.

"The whole concept of it is being able to let us verify whether people have insurance," said Phillips. "It's a little different approach."

The proposed RFID system works similar to the toll tags on cars today, and doesn't contain personal information, Phillips said.

Under Phillips' bill, the RFID tags would be placed on registration stickers affixed to the windshield. The tags would verify whether the vehicle is covered by automobile liability insurance.

A device such as a handheld scanner or a transmitter at a toll booth could read the tags and check them against a computer database that could immediately verify if the vehicle's insurance is current. Insurance companies would be responsible for supplying updated information to the database, which would be maintained by state agencies.

But privacy advocates say the RFID technology is subject to abuse. The readers could be placed on every lamppost or mile marker on a highway, and police could use them to track automobiles.

That means that if a car speeds by the device, then that motorist may receive a ticket in the mail similar to cameras that track people who blow through red lights now, Henson said.

"It's like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer for really what are seemingly small crimes like not having your insurance or toll violations," Henson said. "He's creating a technology that could be abused in all sorts of ways with virtually no restrictions in the bill on law enforcement."

With RFID, the government could track all of us as dots on computer screens, Henson said. Once the technology is in place, he said, it would be hard to prevent it from being used for other applications.

The bill was scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday, but the Transportation Committee didn't discuss it.

The Spring School District near Houston uses RFID tags to keep tabs on its 28,000 students on school property.

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