The city and state of New York have installed a network of wireless-reader devices to monitor the locations of drivers who use the E-Z Pass tag to electronically pay bridge and tunnel tolls, according to documents obtained by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The program – meant to monitor traffic patterns, according to officials – came to light when a privacy activist hacked his E-Z Pass transponder and programmed it to make a sound each time the device was being remotely read. He discovered a network of locations in Lower Manhattan, far from any toll plazas, where his presence was being monitored.
Using the New York Freedom of Information Law, the NYCLU launched an investigation into why E-Z Pass readers were being installed far from toll-booth locations and being used for purposes not originally intended. Following several Freedom of Information Law requests, the results have now been released.
“What we’ve learned is that both city and state transportation agencies have set up E-Z Pass readers around the state as part of technology-based traffic management programs called Midtown in Motion,” NYCLU said in a released statement.
“The city Department of Transportation initially installed 100 microwave sensors, 32 traffic video cameras and E-Z Pass readers at 23 intersections to measure traffic volumes and congestion. By July 2014, that program had expanded to 149 E-Z Pass readers around the city. Outside of New York City, the State Department of Transportation in partnership with other entities has set up a similar traffic management program that scans E-Z Pass tags on major transportation corridors, away from toll plazas.”
The monitoring agencies failed to inform the public before beginning the program, but E-Z Pass and the transportation agencies insist the data collected is only gathered “in aggregate” for the sole purpose of analyzing traffic patterns and is “scrambled” and “anonymized.”
“DOT takes our responsibility to protect privacy seriously and these readers are only used to gather traffic information so that we can improve mobility in the city. The data does not have identifying information for an individual,” said DOT spokeswoman Bonny Tsang.
The NYCLU noted that despite reassurances, the New York City Department of Transportation responded to the FOIL that it had no policies or training materials on storage, retention, destruction or use of the information collected from its E-Z Pass readers.
“New Yorkers have a right to know if our government is collecting information about us, what they’re doing with it and how long they’re keeping it for,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman.
“One piece of information rarely says much about you, but bits and pieces collected over time can paint a detailed portrait of person – their political beliefs, religious affiliations, medical issues and even personal relationships,” he added. “The documents … provide a glimpse into some of the information the government is collecting on us every day.”
“The government should address the privacy concerns of its residents as it adopts new technology and tell the public when it is collecting information about innocent people’s comings and goings,” NYCLU staff sttorney Mariko Hirose told the Staten Island Advance. “As agencies invest in new technology they must also be held accountable; New Yorkers deserve to know that any information the government has on them isn’t being abused.”
In January, it was revealed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie used E-Z Pass toll-booth information obtained from the Port Authority to politically embarrass an opponent, publicizing the number of trips he had made into New York.