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Steve's Random Musings for a Thursday...

LOSING YOUR PRIVACY ONE DEVICE AT A TIME - GPS TRAFFIC DEVICES

It always sounds like a great idea...

Labor-saving devices or devices which ease the burden of daily living are always being invented. In many cases, the devices are innocuous and cannot betray the user if they are used inappropriately. However, a new class of interactive devices is emerging and the consequences of using such devices should be realistically examined.

The Washington Post is reporting...

"Beating Traffic By Joining the Network: New System Takes and Shares Data From Cars"

"For a solitary driver, the ebb and flow of traffic can be maddeningly unpredictable."

"So some tech entrepreneurs wondered what would happen if all of those isolated drivers could be connected and warn one another what lies ahead."

"The idea will get a closely watched tryout this week, when Dash Navigation begins selling two-way GPS devices for cars, creating, in essence, a network of drivers. A central computer will collect speed and location information from each car, then create and transmit back what the start-up company hopes will be the most complete and up-to-the-minute picture of traffic ever created."

"A driver who installs a $599 Dash unit would, in theory, be able to learn about the traffic ahead from someone in the network who had just experienced it."

"...the Dash network will operate in real time and rely less on humans for input than on the devices. The more people who have the devices in a given area, the more accurate the information."

"The units have been tested near Dash's home base in Sunnyvale, Calif., and in other cities around the country, including Washington, where travel delays from congestion are the second-worst in the United States, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Starting Thursday, the company plans to begin selling the devices, which offer traffic information, directions and Internet search."

"Dash's effort is considered the first mass-market attempt to use GPS-based tracking with such a potentially broad U.S. audience. GPS devices in cars have until now provided directions but not such potentially broad-based real-time traffic information."

Entrepreneurs, truck fleets and cellphone companies have been experimenting with similar ideas for years and have encountered thorny issues of privacy and accuracy along the way.

"As criminals, cheats and others have discovered to their dismay in recent decades, a person who uses cellphone or GPS technology can be a lot easier to track. Use of the technology to monitor traffic has repeatedly raised questions about whether the tracking data might be used for other purposes."

No notice given?

"A 2005 experiment by the Maryland Department of Transportation, for example, was scuttled after complaints that the cellphone data gathered from unwitting passersby to gauge traffic speeds could be used to track those cellphone users. That system measured speed by collecting information on how fast cellphone customers were moving between cell towers."

"Other states, including Missouri and Georgia, have pursued or are pursuing similar plans. Georgia has deployed two services that use the cell-tower data to gauge traffic speeds on major roads in the state."

"'We're not spying on anybody,' said Paul Marshall, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Transportation. 'When we tell people about it, we say, 'We have a new way of getting traffic volume and speed information.' . . . They get paranoid when they hear it's cell data."

"The cellphone data that the state receives, however, are "anonymized" -- that is, stripped of any identifying information such as the user's phone number -- and that allays most people's concerns, officials said."

Until the government needs to raise revenue...

We are finding that there is an increasing trend to install red-light cameras and other devices which are being used, not so much for safety purposes, but as sure-fire revenue enhancers which return a steady stream of money to both the system operators and the vendors which supply the systems, sometimes on a contingency-fee basis.

Anonymous by purpose, not design?

"The location information Dash gathers -- which by contrast comes from GPS coordinates, not cell-tower data -- will similarly be anonymized, company officials said."

"'If the FBI comes in tomorrow and says, 'Where were you at 3 p.m. yesterday?' the honest answer will be, 'We don't know,' " Robert Acker, Dash's senior vice president of marketing, said."

Notice the vendors never say that the data is anonymous, they always claim it is being "anonymized." Which means it is accessible under certain situations. One need only to refer to CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) to know that the common carriers handling telephone and Internet traffic are legislatively mandated to  build-in law enforcement access to their systems.

Unless DASH is using their own communications network, which is highly unlikely, they may, in fact, be designated a common carrier under CALEA.

"The Dash device also offers a layer of what might be called domestic privacy: It allows users to delete recently searched-for destinations and services. Internally, company officials call that 'the girlfriend program.'"

It's not easy to process the data...

"The thorniest technological challenge facing efforts like Dash's is how to turn the mountain of minute-by-minute location data from cars into a sensible map of traffic."

"Simply translating a car's speed into traffic levels doesn't work. A car's slow movement might only reflect a slowpoke behind the wheel. A faster speed might only reflect an aggressive driver, or someone cruising the HOV lane. And unless they are properly accounted for, stoplights could look like traffic jams, which is why earlier efforts focused on highways alone. To address such problems, the Dash software looks for patterns in the data and throws out the outliers."

Now I am beginning to get worried...

"'It isn't enough to take the data and say this is the speed on the roadways,' said Bryan Mistele, president of INRIX, a traffic-reporting company spun off by Microsoft that provides the baseline data in Dash's system. "You have to figure out what's going on."

Microsoft?

Pardon my paranoia, but every time I hear the name Microsoft, I think "proprietary data collection with no privacy guarantees." And, in this case, I think of a car's entire system being managed by a Microsoft operating system -- returning "who knows what" data to "who knows where" for "who knows what purpose." 

Considering the all ISPs (Internet Service Providers) are covered under various laws...

"The company hopes that by using INRIX's traffic data as a baseline, and by offering Internet access, it will draw customers before the Dash driver network becomes widespread."

"Whether the Dash venture works out, experts in the field say that eventually one of the companies experimenting with the technology will get it right."

"John Frawley, executive vice president of broadcast operations at Westwood One, which provides traffic information to more than 2,400 radio stations around the country, including WTOP, called it the industry's hottest topic."

"Once it works, 'this kind of GPS tracking is going to make some of the older technology obsolete almost instantaneously,' he said."

Sometimes the paranoid person is right...

It should be noted that there is anecdotal evidence that federal investigators were not only able to track a vehicle with General Motor's OnStar safety system, but also listen to the conversation of the passengers without their consent or knowledge. One hopes that the government did have a court-sanctioned warrant for the surveillance.

There is also anecdotal evidence of the same type of surveillance being performed using modern mobile phones with GPS-enabled tracking which was legislatively mandated to support the 911-emergency response system.

Incriminated by your own electronic device...

We are starting to see an increasing number of cases in which the contents of computer hard drives, answering machines and Internet accounts (the big computer in the clouds) have been entered into court proceedings.

It is known that automotive "black box" data has been subpoenaed and used in insurance cases to deny claims. With modern OBD (On-Board Diagnostic) packages, there is a wealth of information available to anyone who can access your car's computer system. In the case of a crash, certain data is burned into a chip which records throttle position, braking, seatbelt usage, airbag deployment and other parameters which were to originally be used to develop safer cars.

We have also seen certain rental companies track speeding and hard-usage of their rental cars. Perhaps being logged into a database which could serve to raise your rental rates when you next require a rental vehicle. Not to mention various devices which will allow you to track your teenager and monitor their driving performance.

You must develop an awareness that, with all electronic devices which can report on your activities, unless the data is otherwise protected by rock-solid legislation guaranteeing your privacy, much of the information collected may be discoverable by private parties during the discovery phase of a lawsuit and by the government through the use of either a court-sanctioned subpoena or an administrative letter.

Therefore, information regarding your location, speed and possibly your driving habits may be used to your disadvantage by an insurance company seeking to deny your claim.

Similarly, electronic devices can be used by governmental authorities to build potential witness lists comprised of all persons in the immediate vicinity of a criminal event -- along with the actual criminal if he was electronically-enabled. Big brother to the max.

This blog entry is not meant to discourage you from buying that latest whiz-bang gizmo (and I personally have lots of them), but to increase your awareness of any potential legal liability which may arise from such usage.

Of course, the more optimistic among you may point out that the opposite is also true -- that the electronic device can provide you with a rock-solid alibi. To which I can reply, somewhat seriously, that almost all systems can be hacked and data spoofed. The days when a photograph or recording could be taken as gospel are long over.

In any event, since the good almost always outweighs the bad, the average citizen should not worry too much about the everyday consequences of using life-enhancing devices.

What can YOU do?

Remember, before acquiring, installing and using any electronic device which may be used to track your location and/or report on your activities, you must consider the unintended consequences of the use of the data.

Demand that your legislators craft privacy laws that will protect your rights -- although the best protection for any device is an accessible on-off switch which will activate the device only when necessary.

Be aware of the adverse consequences of the misuse of the data. I strongly suggest that you may want to ask a constitutional attorney whether or not your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination extends to electronic devices which may be operated by you or your family. Although the data may be subpoenaed, there may be grounds to suppress the information before it can harm any case in which you may be involved.

Get involved with a civil rights protection organization that was created to protect your privacy. I wholeheartedly believe in the good works being performed by the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) which can be found at www.eff.org. I do not recommend the support of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) as they have become a political action group that apparently serves the needs of far-left liberals rather than protecting everybody against egregious violations of our civil rights.

Enjoy you new toy -- as long as you keep your activities within the bounds of the law.

-- steve

Quote of the day: "

It is always easier to believe than to deny. Our minds are naturally affirmative." -- John Burroughs

A reminder from OneCitizenSpeaking.com: a large improvement can result from a small change…

The object in life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane. -- Marcus Aurelius

Reference Links:

Beating Traffic By Joining the Network|Washington Post


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"The object in life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." -- Marcus Aurelius

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