Traffic management may be the goal, but watch out for the mission creep. New York’s E-ZPass system started out as an efficient way to keep traffic on toll roads running without interruption, but has expanded its coverage to areas where no tolls apply. A couple of years ago, a New York driver rigged up his E-ZPass transponder to light up every time it detected an E-ZPass signal. It lit up a lot.
E-ZPass swears the information collected by its system away from toll roads is only harvested “in aggregate” and “anonymized,” and solely for the purpose of delivering data on traffic patterns. All well and good, but it’s still the same technology it uses on actual toll roads, where vehicles are tracked individually and specifically. This information is turned over in response to court orders (both civil and criminal) as well as to a variety of government agencies, including the New York City’s tax collectors and the Department of Homeland Security. It wouldn’t take much to flip a switch and have E-ZPass track drivers all the way through the city, far from any toll roads.
New York’s ACLU is concerned about this potential for abuse, as well as the system’s use in general. It requested documents related to E-ZPass from a handful of New York government agencies and, somewhat surprisingly, received quite a bit of information in response. But among all the documents it secured, information pertaining to privacy policies and disposal of generated data was definitely in the minority.
The New York State Department of Transportation and the New York State Thruway Authority, for example, produced privacy policies that are vague and barebones. Those agencies report that the E-ZPass readers they use at non-toll locations work differently from those at toll locations. Part of a system called TRANSMIT, the readers electronically scramble identifying information about EZ-Pass accounts, assign an anonymous ID to each vehicle that passes through the system and dump the anonymous IDs every few hours…
The New York City Department of Transportation, more troublingly, appears to have never considered the impact of its study on New Yorkers’ privacy rights. In response to the NYCLU’s FOIL (request number 6), the city Department of Transportation responded that it has no policies or training materials on storage, retention, destruction and use of information generated by or collected from E-ZPass readers.
The NY DOT’s response said this specifically:
…[no] responsive documents were found with respect to items 4, 6, 7, and 8 of your request.
These are the items the DOT claims it has no responsive documents for.
4. Documents, including but not limited to privacy policies and marketing materials, that describe the types of data that can be collected by E-ZPass Readers, when it will be collected, and how it will be used.
6. Policies and training materials describing the storage, retention, destruction, and use of information generated by or collected from E-ZPass Readers.
7. Policies and training materials describing when and how NYCDOT shares information and/or data gathered from E-ZPass Readers with other entities, including but not limited to the New York City Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
8. All documents, redacted as necessary and permitted under law, describing or containing law enforcement requests to NYCDOT for information gathered from E-ZPass Readers in New York City since January 1, 2012, including the response to the requests.
Not exactly comforting, considering there’s been no effort on the part of any of the involved agencies to inform the public that E-ZPass is scanning their devices in areas far removed from toll roads. While E-ZPass may only harvest aggregate, anonymous data currently, that could change at any time and its silence on its expanded coverage area doesn’t exactly give hope that it will be forthcoming should an outside agency (like the surveillance-happy NYPD or the DHS) start requiring it to track drivers throughout New York City.
What is collected about each specific vehicle from scanners on toll roads isn’t being handled responsibly either. While the policies make it pretty clear that this data won’t be handed out to everyone who comes asking (like commercial third parties), it is certainly willing to provide info when hit with a subpoena from a government agency. As we’ve seen in the past, government entities who have direct access to E-ZPass data have abused it for political reasons. The harvesting of data is the necessary byproduct of assessing toll fees, but running the system for years with nothing in the way of disposal policies only increases the potential for abuse.
Finally, no Freedom of Information story is complete without some sort of ridiculous redaction being pointed out. The NY Thruway Authority returned this 9-panel abstract art piece to the NYCLU under the tile “ITS Manual.” (“ITS” presumably stands for “Intelligent Transportation Shaping,” and copies of other ITS manuals can be found scattered around the internet — wholly unredacted.)