- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

OAKLAND, Calif. San Francisco Bay Area officials are planning to track 250,000 drivers during their commutes, raising fears about an invasion of privacy.

"I personally am a little creeped out by it," said interior designer Heidi Hirvonen-White, who crosses the Golden Gate Bridge while driving between Tiburon and San Francisco. "In today's society, it seems like any sort of code or whatnot can be broken."

The enhancement to the region's electronic toll system in a month will allow traffic planners to gather crucial data on congestion. Proponents say that will help commuters and provide them with real-time information by cell phone, radio or Internet.

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Similar to systems in Maryland, Virginia, Houston and the New York region, the Bay Area's FasTrack program eases waits at toll plazas by enabling motorists to pay with electronic tags attached to vehicle windshields.

Now, radio-based sensors mounted on highway signs every few miles will allow the government to track traffic problems.

Monitoring is not optional. The only way to avoid triggering the sensors throughout nine Bay Area counties is to stash the transponder in its accompanying bag.

Maryland and Virginia each use a system that allows drivers to breeze through toll plazas. Spokesmen for both states say they have no plans to use their systems to track motorists.

"We don't do that, and we don't plan to do that," said Bruce Williams, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

In Texas, 1.5 million commuters use a similar traffic information service, said Artee Jones, spokesman for Houston TranStar.

Project leaders at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a San Francisco Bay Area planning agency, say they are not interested in the movements of individual drivers and have gone to great lengths to protect privacy, including encrypting the serial number of each transponder as its location is transmitted.

Authorities promise to keep the data separate from the identities of FasTrak users and other information needed to make automatic monthly deductions from their bank or credit card accounts.

"We're not tracking or trying to follow any individual car, just the overall traffic flow," said Michael Berman, project manager of TravInfo.

But privacy advocates say that once the sensors are in place, there is nothing to prevent such a change. Laws imposed after September 11 make it easier for police to obtain such information.

"Yes, they're building in limitations on the data use, but there's nothing to prevent them from changing the policies in the future," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.

Those in the automotive-telematics industry say the Bay Area's TravInfo project is the latest example of the growing phenomenon of remote monitoring.

Many rental fleets and trucking companies use satellite positioning systems to track cars and cargo. Virginia's transportation department uses satellites to track state-owned vehicles.

Companies promote similar products for keeping tabs on children, dogs, Alzheimer's patients or cheating spouses.

The federal government also is promoting locator technology. By October, the Federal Communications Commission wants cell phones equipped with locator technology to help emergency responders find callers.

That requirement also will enable authorities to track users, even calculating road speeds, said Ray Grefe, vice president of business development for telematics software company Televoke.

"I think there are going to be some nasty court battles that come out of all of this stuff," he said.

Transponder data already have been used in court.

In 1997, E-ZPass records helped show what kidnappers did to New Jersey restaurant millionaire Nelson Gross, whose BMW crossed the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, N.Y., where his battered corpse was found.

Another case involved a Connecticut rental-car company that charged customers $150 each time a Global Positioning System receiver showed they were speeding. The company has stopped the practice.

Mr. Berman emphasized that the San Francisco system wouldn't be used to track kidnappers or car thieves, let alone adulterers.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission with its partners, the California Highway Patrol and the state transportation department has received no requests from law enforcement to tweak the system so drivers can be pursued, Mr. Berman said, adding, "I think if they were to request it, we would say no. That's not our job."

Each of the California system's sensors has two antennas. One continually sends out a radio pulse that "wakes up" when it hits a passing FasTrak transponder. The other antenna notes the transponder's serial number and transmits it, using encryption, by cellular modem to the Travel Information Center in Oakland.

Transponders beep as cars pass through toll plazas but remain silent when they pass the sensors.

All records of serial numbers stored in electronic files will be destroyed daily, leaving general averages and patterns for later study, Mr. Berman said.

While some FasTrak users remain troubled, few say they will give up the shorter toll booth lines or discounts to avoid participating.

Michael Pieri of Richmond, Calif., said he has nothing to hide, but he will stash away the transponder between tolls.

"That's fine if you volunteer for that," he said. "But involuntarily, I don't think it's a good thing at all."

Chris Baker contributed to this story.

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