I grew up in Arizona, a state where toll roads don’t exist. When we moved to Washington, DC in 2011, paying tolls was one of my least favorite parts about traveling throughout the East Coast (don’t taxes pay for roads?). Thankfully, we quickly discovered a way to ease the constant pain of traveling on toll roads: the EZ Pass. It’s convenient, I don’t have to stop at toll plazas, and now instead of having to keep a careful eye on my coin supply, I can earn 2X Chase points every time my credit card is charged to replenish my EZ Pass account.
At toll plazas that use the EZ Pass system, antennas emit a Radio Frequency field that activates the EZ Pass transponders of cars approaching the toll plaza. The EZ Pass transponder broadcasts a signal back to the antenna that contains information about the account the transponder is linked to. This account information is sent to a central database, and if the account is in good standing, meaning the account has a non-zero balance or has a credit card linked to it, the driver gets a green light and can proceed. Austrian company Kapsch TrafficCom AG is the main developer and supplier of this technology.
This technology has eliminated the terrible inconvenience of having to stop and hunt for coins or dollar bills every time you need to pay a toll, and contributes to faster trips for those who use the EZ Pass. In addition, the use of automated toll payment technology like the EZ Pass system contributes to reduced emissions, as cars no longer need to idle and stop while waiting for their turn to pay their toll. However, the potential exists for this technology and the data it generates to be used in intrusive and unsettling ways, and unfortunately, there are several instances of this occurring (1).
In 2013, a New Jersey resident built a simple device (using a breadboard from the Shad plant!) to detect every time his EZ Pass transponder was activated, and drove around New York City. In the stretch between Times Square and Madison Square Garden, a stretch of city streets with no tolls, his EZ Pass transponder was read 6 times! Upon investigation of NYC’s use of EZ Pass readers for purposes other than toll collection, it was discovered that NYC feeds this data to its traffic management center to provide real-time traffic information, to improve traffic flow. NYC stated that transponder information is scrambled and not kept permanently in any system.
I hate traffic more than I hate tolls, so the prospect of being able to use data to reduce traffic is very appealing to me. The problem here, though, is that nowhere in the terms and conditions (2) for EZ Pass is it stated that transponders will be read at locations other than toll plazas. At a minimum, governments that intend to read EZ Pass transponders for purposes other than toll collection should be transparent about it, and should ensure that adequate privacy policies are in place to ensure that users of EZ Pass transponders are aware of how their transponders may be read, and to ensure that any data obtained is anonymous and protected (3).
You might be thinking, why should I care so much about how my EZ Pass data is used? Well, an example from the great state of New Jersey will shed some light on that for us. In 2013, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Deputy Chief of the NJ Port Authority Bill Baroni both used NJ Senator Frank Lautenberg’s EZ Pass records to add to their arguments against increases in tolls that the Senator supported (4). Additionally, Governor Christie called into question the Senator’s dedication to New Jersey, based on the average of 3-4 weekly trips to New York that Gov. Christie observed in the Senator’s EZ Pass records.
The bottom line is that insufficient effort has been dedicated to ensuring that the use of the EZ Pass technology and the vast amounts of data that go along with it will remain safe, and that customers’ privacy and best interests will always be protected. If boundaries aren’t set in place, it will be too easy for customers’ rights to erode. For example, what’s preventing states from deciding to use EZ Pass readers to calculate customers’ speeds, and issue them speeding tickets? Companies like Kapsch Traficcom AG that supply the technology and data management systems that make the EZ Pass system work need to be conscious of how their technology may be used, and pledge to not provide their technology to any agency that does not have robust safeguards in place to protect against the misuse of data.
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- Kashmir Hill, “E-ZPasses Get Read All Over New York (Not Just at Toll Booths),” http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2013/09/12/e-zpasses-get-read-all-over-new-york-not-just-at-toll-booths/#49e70a2f3cfc, accessed November 18, 2016.
- E-ZPass Virginia and VDOT Violations Processing Policy, https://www.ezpassva.com/pdfs/privacy.pdf, accessed November 18, 2016.
- Mariko Hirose, “Newly Obtained Records Reveal Extensive Monitoring of E-ZPass Tags Throughout New York,” https://www.aclu.org/blog/free-future/newly-obtained-records-reveal-extensive-monitoring-e-zpass-tags-throughout-new-york, accessed November 18, 2016.
- Tim Cushing, “Chris Christie, Port Authority Official Abused E-ZPass Data for Their Own Ends,” https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20150120/10430629761/chris-christie-port-authority-official-abused-e-zpass-data-their-own-ends.shtml, accessed November 18, 2016.