E-tracking, coming to a DMV near you

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh digs into latest federal brainstorm to keep tech tabs on citizens' driving habits.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
Trust federal bureaucrats to take a good idea and transform it into a frightening proposal to track Americans wherever they drive.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has been handing millions of dollars to state governments for GPS-tracking pilot projects designed to track vehicles wherever they go. So far, Washington state and Oregon have received fat federal checks to figure out how to levy these "mileage-based road user fees."

Now electronic tracking and taxing may be coming to a DMV near you. The Office of Transportation Policy Studies, part of the Federal Highway Administration, is about to announce another round of grants totaling some $11 million. A spokeswoman on Friday said the office is "shooting for the end of the year" for the announcement, and more money is expected for GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking efforts.

In principle, the idea of what bureaucrats like to call "value pricing" for cars makes sound economic sense.

No policy bans police from automatically sending out speeding tickets based on what the GPS data say.

Airlines and hotels have long charged less for off-peak use. Toll roads would be more efficient--in particular, less congested--if they could follow the same model and charge virtually nothing in the middle of the night but high prices during rush hour.

That price structure would encourage drivers to take public transportation, use alternate routes, or leave earlier or later in the day.

The problem, though, is that these "road user fee" systems are being designed and built in a way that strips drivers of their privacy and invites constant surveillance by police, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

Zero privacy protections
Details of the tracking systems vary. But the general idea is that a small GPS device, which knows its location by receiving satellite signals, is placed inside the vehicle.

Some GPS trackers constantly communicate their location back to the state DMV, while others record the location information for later retrieval. (In the Oregon pilot project, it's beamed out wirelessly when the driver pulls into a gas station.)

The problem, though, is that no privacy protections exist. No restrictions prevent police from continually monitoring, without a court order, the whereabouts of every vehicle on the road.

No rule prohibits that massive database of GPS trails from being subpoenaed by curious divorce attorneys, or handed to insurance companies that might raise rates for someone who spent too much time at a neighborhood bar. No policy bans police from automatically sending out speeding tickets based on what the GPS data say.

The Fourth Amendment provides no protection. The U.S. Supreme Court said in two cases, U.S. v. Knotts and U.S. v. Karo, that Americans have no reasonable expectation of privacy when they're driving on a public street.

The PR offensive
Even more shocking are additional ideas that bureaucrats are hatching. A report prepared by a Transportation Department-funded program in Washington state says the GPS bugs must be made "tamper proof" and the vehicle should be disabled if the bugs are disconnected.

"This can be achieved by building in connections to the vehicle ignition circuit so that failure to receive a moving GPS signal after some default period of vehicle operation indicates attempts to defeat the GPS antenna," the report says.

It doesn't mention the worrisome scenario of someone driving a vehicle with a broken GPS bug--and an engine that suddenly quits half an hour later. But it does outline a public relations strategy (with "press releases and/or editorials" at a "very early stage") to persuade the American public that this kind of contraption would be, contrary to common sense, in their best interest.

One study prepared for the Transportation Department predicts a PR success. "Less than 7 percent of the respondents expressed concerns about recording their vehicle's movements," it says.

That whiff of victory, coupled with a windfall of new GPS-enabled tax dollars, has emboldened DMV bureaucrats. A proposal from the Oregon DMV, also funded by the Transportation Department, says that such a tracking system should be mandatory for all "newly purchased vehicles and newly registered vehicles."

The sad reality is that there are ways to perform "value pricing" for roads while preserving anonymity. You could pay cash for prepaid travel cards, like store gift cards, that would be debited when read by roadside sensors. Computer scientists have long known how to create electronic wallets--using a technique called blind signatures--that can be debited without privacy concerns.

The Transportation Department could require privacy-protective features when handing out grants for pilot projects that may eventually become mandatory. It's now even more important because a new U.S. law ups the size of the grants; the U.K. is planning GPS tracking and per-mile fees ranging between 3 cents and $2.

We'll see. But given the privacy hostility that the Transportation Department and state DMVs have demonstrated so far, don't be too optimistic.