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Could Your Freeway Pass Soon Be Used to Film You? You Might Be Surprised


"Once you have the device out there, someone says, 'Why not use it for this, or that.'"

  • Kapsch Traffic Com AG, a transponder (i.e., E-Z Pass and IPass) manufacturer, filed a patent for technology to include  an inward and outward pointing camera.
  • Technology is not necessarily going to be created.
  • If it were, it would be used to monitor HOV lanes.
  • Kapsch signed a 10 year contract to provide transponders for 22 toll systems in the United States.
  • Kapsch transponders can be found in 41 countries and 64 million cars worldwide.

First, it was OnStar tracking users even after subscription to the service was canceled -- which they since pulled back on. Now, there's a patent filed for an in-car device that would be used for monitoring purposes.

MSNBC reports that Kapsch TrafficCom AG, an Austrian company that creates transponders like E-Z Pass, which allows cars to breeze through tolls, filed a patent for technology that would include cameras in such devices. Cameras would point inside the car as well as out:

The stated reason for an inward-pointing camera is to verify the number of occupants in the car for enforcement of HOV and HOT lanes. The outward-pointing camera could be used for the same purpose, helping authorities enforce minimum occupant rules against drivers who aren't carrying transponders.

But it's easy to imagine other uses.  The patent says the transponders would have the ability to store and transmit pictures, either at random intervals or on command from a central office. It would be tempting to use them as part of a search for a lost child, for example, and law enforcement officials might find the data treasure trove irresistible.  The gadget could also be instructed to take pictures when the acceleration of a car "exceeds a threshold," or when accidents occur, so it could be used like an airplane cockpit flight recorder.

Right now, police officers wait at entrances and exits to highways with HOV lanes, pulling over violators. Monitoring these highways takes time and money.

Even still, the manufacturer, which just signed a 10-year contract to provide transponders to 22 toll collection systems, notes that this is just a patent stage protecting the idea, not that they will go through with making it. And MSNBC reports that P.J. Wilkins, executive director of the E-Z Pass Group consortium, as saying he didn't know of the company's camera idea.

Although this may provide some consolation, MSNBC includes the not-so-comfortable snowball effect should similar devices be developed:

And while it's possible cameras-in-cars technology would be a non-starter in America, that doesn't mean Americans shouldn't be worried, said Lee Tien, a privacy expert with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"I think (drivers) should be pretty concerned," he said. "You want to make sure any use of that technology is very carefully regulated. People should let the E-Z Pass folks know now what they think about any possible plans to introduce cameras in their cars, now, while it's being developed, rather than before it's already a fait accompli, and some agency says it's already spent millions on it and can't turn back now."


"You could imagine that they could limit the capacity of devices  -- say the images would be destroyed after a very short period of time -- so it would not be as powerful a surveillance device. But that's not the general dynamic," he said. "Once you have the device out there, someone says, 'Why not use it for this, or that.' That's usually where the battle between privacy and other social goals is lost."

An actual IPass user on the Slashdot discussion board expresses his concerns about the patent and infringement of privacy:

"I received a form letter from the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority saying that my first-generation 'IPASS' transponder needs to be replaced because the battery is old. I called them for clarification since the first-generation transponders obviously have user-replaceable batteries, and I wanted to keep this version because it beeps when a toll is paid. (This notifies drivers that their battery is still good, unlike the silent second-generation version, which informs them of a dead battery by sending a ticket in the mail.) The woman on the phone explained that they were replacing them just because the electronics are old. This uninformed answer made me research the device. I found that the manufacturer has recently filed a patent application for a new transponder that has a camera in it — a camera pointed inward at the occupants. How long before they make it illegal to cover that camera with tape?"

E-Z Pass customers have been concerned with tracking before, even though the company says it doesn't use the device for tracking purposes. But to help quell complaints it did release an anonymous version.

Wilkins states, according to MSNBC, that Americans shouldn't be concerned about E-Z Pass tracking when cell phones companies already admit to tracking customers.

But maybe that means they should worry more.

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