RFID Spy Chips: Toll Tags & Tracking Drivers

Radio Frequency (RFID) readers are not limited to toll roads. One driver tweaked his toll tag to make a sound go off every time it’s detected and picked-up by an RFID reader. He discovered it went off all over the streets of New York, nowhere near a toll road.

By Terri Hall | September 25, 2013

Whether it’s license plate readers, toll tags, or mobile phones, one thing is certain – you are being tracked. A recent uptick in reports of toll tags being used to track vehicle movements has created a firestorm of controversy over how such information can be used, more importantly, abused, and how such invasions of privacy are justified to travel a public road.

In the age of electronic tolling, most Toll Tags and EZ Passes are embedded with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology that allows toll equipment to detect and record when a car passes through its gantry for billing purposes. Toll agencies promise the information is only used for billing and toll collection, yet there’s rarely any policy in place to protect personal information, how long the information is stored, and to whom the data can be sold to or shared with.

Angst over government tracking of citizens broke out when the discussion of a national ID enabled with RFID chips emerged after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Concerned citizens and privacy advocates dubbed them ‘spy chips.’ The implementation of such IDs has been repeatedly delayed due to the controversy and privacy concerns. But such radio frequency technology quietly continues to find other government uses, such as Smart Meters.

The technology clearly benefits law enforcement. Whether its to find a stolen car or find a criminal on the loose, that’s where the public safety advantages stop. It can also clearly be used to issue speeding tickets as car speeds can be measured by how fast they pass between gantries if such information gets passed onto law enforcement. The Texas legislature considered a bill that would have required all state vehicle registration stickers to have RFID spy chips before the bill was scuttled by angry Texans.

Not unlike red light camera battles

One needs to look no further than the contentious battles over red light cameras across the nation to see just how radioactive toll tag tracking and the potential for issuing tickets and other violations through the use of such ‘billing’ equipment will be. Issuing a ticket via camera is flat unconstitutional and inhibits the driver’s ability to face their accuser in court. Of course, law enforcement tries to skirt this basic principle by having a live cop view the stored red light camera footage after the fact.

Red light camera tickets are largely seen as revenue generating devices for cities rather than a matter of public safety. There are studies that back-up that contention, not to mention real traffic data that shows accidents actually go up at intersections with red light cameras.

Indeed, even red light camera companies themselves pitch the programs as a way to help to balance local budgets, not to make intersections safer. In fact, one New Mexico court found red light cameras violate due process when the registered owner of a vehicle was prosecuted for a supposed red light violation when he wasn’t even behind the wheel when it occurred. Therefore, the violation was based on hearsay.

There’s also been plenty of corruption by red light camera companies getting cozy with key public officials tasked with making decisions on red light cameras. In Washington D.C., there was even a case where a cop cooked the books on speed camera logs. But the most high profile bribery cases were in Chicago and Louisiana. In Chicago, the red light camera company, Redflex Traffic Systems, bribed transportation officials that were overseeing the contracts. The bribery even reached judges overseeing red light camera cases. In Louisiana, the adjudicator of red light camera cases in the District Attorney’s office took bribes to exonerate driving records.

Don’t think this kind of abuse won’t happen with toll tag data and the potential for widespread tracking of and sale of data collected on innocent motorists. Toll violations are already being issued to registered owners of the vehicle captured on toll gantry cameras, not the actual drivers committing the violation. Such erroneous violations will not only clog the courts, but will continue to violate the due process rights of our citizens.

‘Function creep’

The Canadian Privacy Commissioner warned of ‘function creep’ when she investigated the use of license plate reader technology to mine data on motorists not suspected of any crime. A technology may be deployed for one use, like to catch criminals, but its function starts to creep into other areas, which can open the door to privacy violations and misuse of data.

The Connecticut legislature actually advanced a bill to expand the list of violations that could be prosecuted using RFID tracking by mandating their inclusion on every state-issued license plate. It would monitor all vehicles based on information collected by various tracking stations, or readers, throughout the state. The point? To issue automatic tickets for lapses in vehicle registration, emissions, or insurance certification.

The ACLU put out a report in July showing how widespread license plate readers are being utilized by law enforcement. Data is being stored on millions of trips with few if any policies in place to protect personal data or privacy concerns.

But digital radio frequency tracking technology is considered superior to license plate cameras and other video technology since weather and temperature can obscure video images. So its likely to be the preferred method of governments.

TxDOT deploys continuous vehicle tracking

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has already deployed SmartSensor vehicle tracking devices in the Dallas area (possibly in other areas) to continuously monitor traffic conditions. It uses digital wave radar technology that can actually predict ‘estimated time of arrival’ of individual vehicles at an intersection and control the traffic control devices at those intersections to allow those vehicles through the intersection to avoid collisions from running red lights. Specifically it can “simultaneously and continuously monitor the speed and distance from the stop bar of each uniquely identified vehicle.”

However, it stands to reason at those same intersections that this technology could be used to purposely trigger red light violations of any number of motorists it wishes. TxDOT says they do not use the technology for law enforcement (yes, but for how long – remember ‘function creep’), but rather to generate travel times for dynamic traffic signs. But Wavetronix, the company that makes and supports SmartSensor, claims the technology can create “a speed trap similar to a dual loop system. This speed trap allows SmartSensor HD to offer something competitive radar traffic detectors can’t—accurate per vehicle speeds.”

The digital wave radar technology also contains continuous vehicle tracking that “‘remembers’ the position of each vehicle and monitors their individual movements. This process of recording the positions of vehicles and monitoring the vehicles as they move is useful in generating vehicle dynamics such as speed and direction of movement.”

Tracking you off the toll road

So big daddy government is already watching you over your shoulder, unbeknownst to most motorists. Those who sign-up for a Toll Tag are unwittingly signing up to put a government-issued RFID spy chip in your personal vehicle. As a New Jersey driver recently found out, RFID readers are not limited to toll roads. He tweaked his toll tag to make a sound every time it’s detected and picked-up by an RFID reader. He discovered it went off all over the streets of New York, nowhere near a toll road.

Given that TxDOT is already using a continuous traffic monitoring device on public streets, and given the fact that same agency has access to Toll Tag account information linked to personal home addresses, vehicle information, bank accounts and/or credit card information, is it any wonder the Toll Tag tracking revelation has triggered a proverbial wildfire over privacy concerns and the possible mining and sale of personal data?

With the widespread opportunity for abuse, we might just be wishing for a return of the nostalgic days of toll booths and live people to collect toll payments. Scratch that. Nixing all this toll road bureaucracy and electronic tracking which feeds the big government surveillance beast is by far the superior option.

Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of nine turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.