Cell phone data tracing traffic in Md.

System `watches' vehicles, raises fears about privacy

November 18, 2005|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

If you drive in metropolitan Baltimore and use a cellular phone, somebody might be "watching" as you come and go.

A Canadian company is monitoring the flow of vehicle traffic in the area by using an emerging technology that tracks the constant stream of data generated by drivers' cell phones as they communicate with towers in the network.

Maryland highway officials are excited. They plan to use the technology to help traffic move more smoothly. But privacy advocates worry that the system could lead to bigger headaches than a Beltway backup.

In a few years, researchers say, the program could take a big bite out of congestion on the nation's roads by quickly delivering alerts on road conditions directly to drivers.

"It's going to revolutionize the way we plan our trips and the way we drive," said Philip J. Tarnoff, director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It'll be the electronic equivalent of the interstate system in terms of improvement in transportation."

Delcan NET, the company marketing the technology, has been gathering the information since early this year in the Baltimore region, the first place in the United States where it has rolled out the system. It has an agreement to share the information with the State Highway Administration, which hopes to begin using the data to give drivers more timely and complete alerts on road conditions sometime next year.

Delcan NET insists that the system will do nothing to track the movement of individual drivers. It says that even if police came with a warrant, the company wouldn't be able to tell them where a certain person was at a certain time.

But Kevin Bankston, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, says the tracking might violate federal law. Even if it doesn't, he says, it is a dangerous idea.

"This is very much a slippery slope. As we begin making more and more uses of cell phone location information, that increases the chances that information will be used for more invasive purposes in the future," Bankston said. "We are basically developing the surveillance infrastructure that has the capability to track people individually - even if that system is not being used to do that yet."

The Delcan technology is conceptually simple and technologically complex.

Embedded in the database of a large cellular telephone company is Delcan software that uses mathematical formulas called algorithms to monitor the flow of traffic in the region. Delcan officials would not identify the company, but Maryland transportation officials confirmed that it is Cingular.

As long as a Cingular subscriber's phone is turned on, the network knows when the device leaves the area covered by one cell tower and enters the zone of another. The Delcan system would not pick up conversations, but by electronically noting the time of the "handoffs" from cell to cell, it could determine the location and speed of the vehicle.

By lumping together the data from multiple drivers, the system can determine, for instance, that southbound traffic on Interstate 95 is slowing to a crawl at the Jessup exit.

Using $1.9 million in federal funds, Maryland highway officials have entered into a contract with Delcan that gives them access to the data. By next summer, they hope to have developed the ability to analyze the data and provide better information to motorists than they can now through use of video cameras and sensors. Information about backups could be relayed to drivers through electronic signs and radio traffic reporters.

"We care about the flow of traffic. Our goal is to be able to respond to things as quickly as possible," said state highway spokesman David Buck. By quickly clearing accident sites, the state can help minimize secondary crashes and the rubber-necking that often adds to congestion after a crash.

One advantage of the cellular-based tracking system, Buck said, is that it provides coverage of secondary roads as well as the interstates where Maryland's traffic-monitoring technology is now concentrated.

Richard Mudge, vice president of Delcan NET, said the system now covers roughly 600 square miles around Baltimore - extending 5 to 10 miles outside the Beltway. He said the company installed systems previously in Antwerp, Belgium, and Tel Aviv, Israel.

"We don't like to call it a test. We think it's a full-scale deployment," he said.

Mudge, whose company is a subsidiary of Ontario-based Delcan, said his firm chose Maryland to roll out the technology because of its Department of Transportation's strong interest in monitoring traffic.

He emphasized that there is no way the state could use the information it receives from a cellular company to track individuals. Mudge said his firm's cellular partner was insistent on that point.

"The first question they asked was if we needed any individual information, and if we did they wouldn't talk to us because that goes to the heart of their business," he said.

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