Wholesale Automobile Surveillance Comes to New York City

New York is installing an automatic toll-collection system for cars in the busiest parts of the city. It’s called congestion pricing, and it promises to reduce both traffic and pollution.

The problem is that it keeps an audit log of which cars are driving where. London’s congestion pricing system is already being used for counterterrorism purposes—and now for regular crime as well. The EZPass automatic toll collection system, used in New York and other places, has been used to prove infidelity in divorce court.

There are good reasons for having this system, but I am worried about another wholesale surveillance tool.

EDITED TO ADD (9/4): EZPass records have been used in criminal court as well.

Posted on August 17, 2007 at 6:48 AM26 Comments


RC August 17, 2007 8:07 AM

The problem is that we as citizens have no explicit constitutional right against such intrusions on our privacy. We are constantly subject to the possibility that an unwise law will be passed which intrudes on our privacy, or that a relatively reasonable law will later be interpreted in a way that does the same.

bzelbob August 17, 2007 8:27 AM

@RC – You are right, we have no explicit rights against intrusions, but we do have a very powerful weapon: Freedom.

The Freedom NOT to travel to New York for tourism. I, for one, will NOT now go to New York for anything!!! They will not be getting my money.

The Freedom to move the hell out of New York. What with the surveillance state, the restrictions on cameras, etc. why would you now want to live there?

Ian Eiloart August 17, 2007 8:36 AM

It’s not a wholesale surveillance tool. 25% of households in the UK don’t have a car. In London, that figure is 40%.

Actually, I share your concerns about wholesale surveillance, but please don’t go spreading the myth that you need a car to exist in the modern world.

Eam August 17, 2007 8:46 AM

@Ian Eiloart:
That’s probably the weirdest, most off-topic straw man argument I’ve ever seen.

He clearly meant “wholesale” as in “large scale with no specific target,” and I’m really not sure where you get the idea he implied a car is necessary “to exist in the modern world.”

jhritz August 17, 2007 8:54 AM

This sort of thing could be solved with data retention requirements in the privacy agreement. The city has no compelling interest in binding personal information (the transponder id) to the use of the service once they’ve been paid.

Carlo Graziani August 17, 2007 9:21 AM

All considerations about our burgeoning surveillance society aside, any tourist who travels to Manhattan by automobile is obviously confused.

Nick Lancaster August 17, 2007 9:22 AM

The FasTrak system implemented in the San Francisco Bay Area will release toll crossing information to a legal request for things like divorce proceedings … however, the transportation folks say that the other use of the transponders, to track traffic flow as FasTrak enabled cars zip to and fro, is not available to outside requests and the data is supposedly discarded at day’s end.

Still, we’ve been fed sufficient lies about who has access to what data and how it’s being used that some skepticism is sensible. It’s a trade off – the ease of not having to wait in lines at toll booths for being under surveillance on the highway.

(What I want to know is why people still have trouble grokking the ‘FasTrak Only’ lane, especially when it’s marked with signs and paint.)

Oh, as far as the ‘cars aren’t necessary for modern living’ silliness – how did the food get to the market, on a horse-drawn cart? Seriously, though, even if you don’t have a car and/or abstain from toll transponder programs, it’s easy enough to find a commodity or convenience so appealing that you’ll accept having a chip and being tracked.

DV Henkel-Wallace August 17, 2007 9:55 AM

It’s simple to design these systems not to leak secrets by default (make them a stored-value system that only records the plate for fines if the card is empty). It’s as if the system were designed up front for these other purposes.

Writing this made me wonder: I had always assumed that tollbooths only photograph your plate if you don’t pay the automatic machine….but is that true?

And now I think about it, what about airport parking lots that photograph plates…are those records ever destroyed?

Yuck, I think I’d better lie down.

Doc Barnett August 17, 2007 9:59 AM

“any tourist who travels to Manhattan by automobile is obviously confused.”

Indeed. If pricing keeps out the ones who are only willing to drive, it will be better for everyone. Bring on the driver’s boycott! (C.P.’s passage through the state legislature is far from certain, though.)

I don’t kid myself about the darker surveillance side of pricing, but as cars are already reduced privacy and rights “zones,” and they wreck all kinds of havoc on the city (most of it unnecessary), I’m willing to overlook it. And if pricing achieves the modal shift that it aims for, it could even be a net privacy gain. More people will walk the streets, or travel the subway and trains (I buy my metrocards in cash), anonymously.

There’s a growing cultural gap between city dwellers who’ve left cars behind and those who still depend on them; I’m sure we sound weird, but to us it sounds weird when people directly equate cars to freedom, or to movement in general. Food can be delivered by train instead of truck by the way, but I don’t see how that’s relevant when we’re talking about personal cars and personal privacy. If my apple is spied upon for the last five miles of its truck trip to the market, that’s okay by me.

Bill G August 17, 2007 10:16 AM

These fears may be unfounded, as this undertaking remains unfunded. The Albany gang sent the NYC gang packing when they went begging and the recent enormous Federal security grant to New York specifically excluded funds for this purpose, telling NYC to cough up itself or extort the money from corporations. (See a variety of recent NYT stories.)
From my point of view, going into Manhattan by any route is already so unpleasant in so many ways that additional humiliations and inconveniences are inconsequential.

A Specific Anonymous Person August 17, 2007 10:38 AM

Wasn’t the flagship product of the David Chaum’s Digigash company a toll system that didn’t leave audit trails?

I know that most people don’t think too much about the privacy implications of these systems, but maybe if we spent a few years talking about it, and trying to explain the position, it would be possible to get cities to shift to more private systems for toll collections.

In Chicago, you have to pay double tolls if you don’t use the automated system, and it’s a lot slower. I don’t drive the toll roads often enough to have a problem with that, but if I did, I break down and buy the radio box even though I understand its implications.

I’d say, “I don’t have anything to hide anyway.” Which is what everyone says.

But private systems can be built, and I think that people would want them if they knew they were possible. So maybe we should start pushing for them.

DigitalCommando August 17, 2007 10:41 AM

@ Ian: You also forgot to mention the other groups not affected by this, the dead, quadraplegics, prisoners, and old women that have entoumbed themselves in the shawls they were knitting, etc. Your argument is typical of a defeated people who have accepted rear entry of the government phallus, and now relishes it’s every thrust. Your country has served the world well by giving us a model of how citizens should NOT act.
There are basically 2 parts that are required to stop or shift the course of government actions which we do not agree with. First, we must be made aware of them. This is where Bruce is doing his duty, bringing to light the possible problems that exist. Second, it is up to us to get mad, take the ball and run, set aside our daily lives for 1 hour ( you could handle that, I hope) and sit down and write a letter to your senators and congress expressing your concern with the direction of the event your unhappy with. This IS the power of the people, unrecognized and under- utilized as it may be, next to the vote, it’s all we have. Or, you could just continue whining in the blogosphere, further enhancing your position as a non-citizen who did nothing, contributed nothing and will soon be in a box with a “did nothing” legacy……

derf August 17, 2007 12:43 PM

Good old slippery slope…

It starts with video surveillance of cars. It moves to creating a tax based on miles driven by requiring GPS systems in all new cars to report data to the government. The government just changes the rules on the use of this data to make it possible to track where you go. From there, it’s just a hop and a skip to implanting RFID/GPS in humans for tracking purposes.

Ignorance is strength.

Jojo August 17, 2007 1:28 PM

What we need are those rotating license plates that James Bond had on his Aston Martin [lol].

Jed Hoover August 17, 2007 1:43 PM


“@bzelbob: Where will you live if cameras are rolled out everywhere?”

You are both welcome to come out here and enjoy North Dakota. 😉

mindfunk August 17, 2007 2:56 PM

So, as far as the claim you not having a constitutional right to privacy goes, this is just BS.

Correct me if I am wrong, but the argument goes like this “the constitution does not explicitly say you have a right to privacy, therefore you do not have it.”

Correct? or am I missing something?

Well, the sole purpose of the 9th amendment was to shoot that argument in the head:


The claim is just neo-con BS. I have actually read Scalia’s own words where he says that. Robert Bork also claims that the 9th amendment is meaningless.

It is good to know that neo-con judges read the actual law and do not legislate from the bench!

security blog August 17, 2007 4:00 PM

I wonder why they don’t just give huge incentives and tax breaks for business in less congested zones.

Its amazing how little attension is paid to the right to privacy..

what is more shocking is how little citizens seem to care. On day they will, but by that time it will be too late.

Val August 17, 2007 4:23 PM

“[A]ny tourist who travels to Manhattan by automobile is obviously confused.”

Anyone thinking this obviously has not lived in or around NYC. As it stands, the quickest way to get from one borough to another is often through Manhattan.

john Henry August 17, 2007 4:27 PM

Perhaps Puerto Rico does it right with our AutoExpreso system. It is like EasyPass in allowing us to go non-stop through toll booths. That is where the similarity ends:

1) The pass is not tied to a person or even a car. You go into most Texaco stations as well as some other locations and plunk down $10. For that you get a passive RFID label that you stick on your windshield. Or, you could stick it to some Velcro and move it from car to car. Unlike the Chicago (and probably other) area, there is no requirement that it stay in a particular car.

2) It is a cash transaction unless you sign up for automatic replenishment in which case you have to give a a Visa/MC number.

3) To add money to the card, stop at any Texaco (or other location) and hand them a plastic card that came with the tag. Give them any amount of cash in $10 increments. They swipe the card and credit the account.

At no point is my name or other ID info linked to my AutoExpreso.

They do have cameras at all toll booths to catch people who don’t pay the toll. But that is at all booths AutoExpreso, exact change or attended. I am not clear whether this takes pics of all cars or only the ones not paying the toll.

I would never buy an EasyPass in the continental US where it gets tied to either me or my car.

Doc Barnett August 17, 2007 5:40 PM

“I wonder why they don’t just give huge incentives and tax breaks for business in less congested zones.”

What? We are not trying to remove business, or people, from the congestion zone. Just the opposite! We are trying to remove some of the personal cars so that more business can happen here (among other benefits).

“what is more shocking is how little citizens seem to care. On day they will, but by that time it will be too late.”

The majority of New Yorkers do not own cars. So sorry for not being up in arms about drivers losing more privacy, a slope they’ve been sliding down for as long as license plates have been required. People that conflate “to go” with “to drive my car” practically have RFIDs under their skins as it is. If they were more concerned about that, and less with shaving a few minutes off inter-borough trips, pricing wouldn’t be necessary.

That said, if anyone wants to come up with a real c.p. plan for NYC that is more private than the mayor’s, that would be great. Send it to one of the many anti-pricing local pols who’ve taken a sudden interest in privacy; I’m sure they’ll take it right up.

Analogy Guy August 17, 2007 5:50 PM

In New Hampshire, the tollbooths snap a picture of your plate even when you do pay – even when paying a human. I believe this because my lidar detector goes off each time I pull out of a tollbooth and I attribute that to an infra-red flash for a black&white camera.

It has bothered me for a while.

Jeff September 13, 2007 11:21 AM

Why has nobody mentioned a problem with federal funds (money from everyone paying federal taxes) going to individual cities to try and manage their local traffic problems (and generate local revenue). Shouldn’t federal funds be used for the benefit of the entire nation?

Jeff September 13, 2007 11:25 AM

I guess the last post is a late comment (I’m a little delayed in my readings), and I realized that my post is not security related, just a political rant. Sorry for the intrusion.

carbon14 May 7, 2008 8:59 AM

Citizens don’t care because Lou Dobbs hasn’t yet called for a fence around manhatten. its an idea whos time is just around the corner. first, though, we need a generation raised on fear of terrorists. weak little terrorists, I was raised on fear of joe stalins hydrogen bomb, now its guys with bad attitudes and bad smell, who will surely be working your suburb if we don’t kill iraqis every day.

TampaDriver July 19, 2009 6:54 PM

My concern is only one single lane out of 6 that infrared-photos the windshield and driver’s face BEFORE entering the SunPass booth. What’s up with that?

Is this some test for face recognition technology to catch criminals travelling the roadways?

Is this also happening up North? Does anyone else know of this?

Have you seen the red leds (glowing then flash) around the camera pointed at you?

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