The revelation that a consultant hired by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) used a Bluetooth reader to secretly collect trip origination and destination data from unsuspecting travelers didn’t come to light in time for a bill to be filed in the Texas legislature that concluded its 84th session on June 1. But look for legislation at the earliest opportunity to protect Texans from such an infringement of their individual rights. In the meantime, the citizen groups insist TxDOT should voluntarily cease and desist.
By Terri Hall l June 15, 2015
At a recent stakeholders meeting on the I-35 bypass study in San Antonio, it came to light that a consultant hired by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) used a Bluetooth reader to secretly collect the trip origination and destination data from unsuspecting travelers. Texans were shocked to learn of this invasion of privacy by a government agency and its consultant. The backlash to the NSA wiretapping scandal demonstrates how much Americans detest government spying on the private lives of innocent, law-abiding citizens. Warrantless snooping and tracking is a violation of the 4th Amendment to the Constitution.
When pressed, the consultant claimed the data could not be traced back to individuals. However, since the data was collected via Bluetooth enabled smartphones, it’s not hard to trace a phone number back to a specific individual. They gave no assurances that this data was being discarded after the trip information was collected and no assurances that this data isn’t being given to or sold to other entities for other uses, particularly law enforcement agencies.
From checkpoints to covert snooping
Just a few years ago when it was collecting trip information for the US 281 and Loop 1604 toll projects, TxDOT set-up checkpoints where its consultants pulled over motorists and asked them to voluntarily provide trip origin and destination information. But after getting flack for the checkpoints and being called the ‘Gestapo,’ now it has turned to covert, involuntary collection of information on Texans travel patterns.
The data includes time of day and location information which could be used for ill against those travelers – whether 4th Amendment violations by law enforcement or by a criminal element should the information fall into the hands of those wishing to prey on those travelers.
With this data, any common criminal could figure out where the smartphone owner lives and see when they’re not home and break into their house. Someone could lie in wait for a vulnerable female when she arrives at work or on an errand or at home in the dark. Third parties are known to sell such information and neither TxDOT nor its consultant had answers as to where it derived its authority to take this action or whether this information is protected from its contractor selling or disclosing this information to others.
Concerned citizen groups Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom and Texans for Toll-free Highways asked TxDOT to give an immediate accounting of why the decision was made to collect involuntary trip information for this I-35 bypass study using a private contractor; where this information is being stored and for how long; if this information is being barred from disclosure to any other entities (whether public or private); and, when and how this information will be discarded.
Past infringements met with swift legislative action
In 2007, TxDOT came under fire for keeping a database of all license plates that used its toll roads, allowing travel data to be collected unbeknownst to the vehicle owners with no protection from the data being sold to private parties. The outrage prompted former San Antonio State Representative David Leibowitz to pass a bill to prohibit such information from being sold to private parties. House Bill 570 specifically states that license plate information gathered manually or by automated enforcement technology can only be used for toll collection, toll collection enforcement, and law enforcement purposes, but cannot be sold to private entities for commercial purposes. There is no such law to protect travelers from trip data collected by Bluetooth readers.
This revelation didn’t come to light in time for a bill to be filed in the Texas legislature that concluded its 84th session on June 1. But look for legislation at the earliest opportunity to protect Texans from such an infringement of their individual rights. In the meantime, the citizen groups insist TxDOT should cease and desist immediately.
A TxDOT spokesperson responded, “The Bluetooth technology cannot be tied to an individual.”
But a simple Google search reveals: Each device has a unique MAC-48 identifier needed to connect to other devices. This in turn is connected to the Cell Provider device profile, which in turn is connected to the personal information of the customer.
As one tracking opponent rightly concludes, “It would not be a stretch to see the government storing these records (aka- the NSA) to be mined later with a simple request to the cell provider. Long story short: they have enough to find out who you are, and what you were doing at any date in the past where you were tracked.”
If it’s all so harmless, why hasn’t TxDOT answered these critical questions:
Where and how is this information being stored, for how long, and have they and their contractor been forbidden from selling (or giving) the data to third parties or other governmental entities?
These are critical questions when it comes to privacy and our constitutional rights. Just because TxDOT claims it’s good information to aid them in gathering travel times, does NOT mean it can’t be tracked back to an individual nor does it guarantee their contractor isn’t selling this valuable data to the highest bidder.
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.