Far from tolls, New York gathers location data through E-ZPass

AutoBlog, By Pete Bigelow, April 22

E-ZPass readers are used for more than collecting tolls in New York.

Documents published Wednesday shed new light on how city and state transportation officials have been using the E-ZPass tags for at least four years to collect location information from unsuspecting drivers as part of ongoing studies on traffic congestion.

A lawyer with the New York Civil Liberties Union said there are few provisions in place that govern how this information is used, and that the studies could amount to a surveillance network.

“Most people probably didn’t know their E-ZPass reader is being read away from toll plazas, which is why they enrolled in the service,” said Mariko Hirose, a staff attorney at the NYCLU, who uncovered the scope of the programs through public-records requests and mapped the location of E-ZPass readers. “If the government is going to set up something like this, they should make sure people know it’s happening and give them a choice to opt out.”

Drivers don’t have that choice. In most cases, they’re unaware information on their whereabouts is even being collected beyond toll booths, and neither state nor city departments have opt-out procedures in place.

Meanwhile, the number of E-ZPass readers installed away from toll booths has proliferated. In August 2013, 43 of these electronic machines generated an average of 250,000 records on completed travel times every day in New York City alone. By July 2014, there were 149 E-ZPass readers positioned around the city.

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