Big Brother In Your Car:
Feds coordinating plan to use monitoring devices to catalogue the movements of every American driver.
BY TARA SERVATIUS
Deep inside the United States Department of Transportation, Big Brother is rearing his head. On the third floor of the USDOT building in the heart of Washington, DC, a shadowy government agency that doesn't respond to public inquiries about its activities is coordinating a plan to use monitoring devices to catalogue the movements of every American driver.
Most people have probably never heard of the agency, called the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office. And they haven't heard of its plans to add another dimension to our national road system, one that uses tracking and sensor technology to erase the lines between cars, the road and the government transportation management centers from which every aspect of transportation will be observed and managed.
For 13 years, a powerful group of car manufacturers, technology companies and government interests has fought to bring this system to life. They envision a future in which massive databases will track the comings and goings of everyone who travels by car or mass transit. The only way for people to evade the national transportation tracking system they're creating will be to travel on foot. Drive your car, and your every movement could be recorded and archived. The federal government will know the exact route you drove to work, how many times you braked along the way, the precise moment you arrived -- and that every other Tuesday you opt to ride the bus.
They'll know you're due for a transmission repair and that you've neglected to fix the ever-widening crack that resulted from a pebble dinging your windshield.
Once the system is brought to life, both the corporations and the government stand to reap billions in revenues. Companies plan to use the technology to sell endless user services and upgrades to drivers. For governments, tracking cars' movements means the ability to tax drivers for their driving habits, and ultimately to use a punitive tax system to control where they drive and when, a practice USDOT documents predict will be common throughout the country by 2022.
This system the government and its corporate partners are striving to create goes by many names, including the information superhighway and the Integrated Network of Transportation information, or INTI. Reams of federal documents spell out the details of how it will operate.
Despite this, it remains one of the federal government's best-kept secrets. Virtually nothing has been reported about it in the media. None of the experts at the privacy rights groups Creative Loafing talked to, including the ACLU, the Consumers Union and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, had ever heard of the INTI. Nor had they heard of the voluminous federal documents that spell out, in eerie futuristic tones, what data the system will collect and how it will impact drivers' daily lives.
Buried inside two key federal documents lies a chilling cookbook for a Big Brother-style transportation-monitoring system. None of the privacy experts we talked to was aware of a 2002 USDOT document called the "National Intelligent Transportation Systems Program Plan: A Ten-Year Vision" or the "National ITS Architecture ITS Vision Statement," published by the Federal Highway Administration in 2003.
What's more, no one we talked to was aware of just how far the USDOT has come in developing the base technology necessary to bring the system to life.
More than $4 billion in federal tax dollars has already been spent to lay the foundation for this system. Some of the technologies it will use to track our movements are already familiar to the public, like the GPS technology OnStar already used to pinpoint the location of its subscribers. Others are currently being developed by the USDOT and its sub-agencies.
Five technology companies hired by the USDOT to develop the transceivers, or "on-board units," that will transmit data from your car to the system are expected to unveil the first models next spring. By 2010, automakers hope to start installing them in cars. The goal is to equip 57 million vehicles by 2015.
Once the devices are installed, the technology will allow cars to talk to each other in real time, transmitting information about weather, dangerous road conditions ahead and even warning drivers instantaneously of an impending collision. When used in combination with GPS technology already being installed in millions of cars, the INTI will be able to transmit real-time information about where your car is and where you've been.
Though Joint Project Office officials refused to talk to Creative Loafing about the next step in their plan, one official defined it simply in a presentation before the National Research Council in January.
"The concept," said Bill Jones, Technical Director of the Joint Office, "is that vehicle manufacturers will install a communications device on the vehicle starting at some future date, and equipment will be installed on the nation's transportation system to allow all vehicles to communicate with the infrastructure."
"The whole idea here is that we would capture data from a large number of vehicles," Jones said at another meeting of transportation officials in May. "That data could then be used by public jurisdictions for traffic management purposes and also by private industry, such as DaimlerChrysler, for the services that they wish to provide for their customers."
According to USDOT's 10-year plan, the key "data" the INTI will collect is "the identity and performance of transportation system users."
"It's going to happen," said Jean-Claude Thill, a professor at the University of Buffalo who specializes in transportation and geographic information and who has done research for USDOT. "It's probably going to start in the large metropolitan areas where there's a much larger concentration and more demand for the services that are going to be made available."
With this system, and the fantastic technology it will enable, the government and the auto industry claim they can wipe out all but a fraction of the 42,000 deaths on America's roads by literally intervening between the drivers, cars and the road. But as they careen toward making it a reality, its costs in terms of individual privacy have barely been contemplated.
If the government has its way, these technologies will no longer be optional. They'll be buried deep inside our cars at the auto factory, unremovable by law. If things go as planned, within the next decade these devices will begin transmitting information about us to the government, regardless of whether we want to share it or not.
More chilling still is the fact that Creative Loafing isn't the first to use the "Big Brother" label to describe the system. Even the corporate leaders working to create it refer to it in Orwellian terms. At a workshop for industry and government leaders last year, John Worthington, the President and CEO of TransCore -- one of the companies currently under contract to develop the on-board units USDOT wants to put in your car -- described INTI as "kind of an Orwellian all-singing, all-dancing collector/aggregator/disseminator of transportation information."
This story really begins in 1991, the year Congress established a program to develop and deploy what is now called "Intelligent Transportation Systems," or ITS. At the time, most ITS technology was in its infancy. But even back then, the long-term goal of the federal government and the automobile industry was to develop and deploy a nationwide traffic monitoring system. A transportation technology industry quickly sprang to life over the next decade, feeding off federal money and the corporate demand for wireless technology.
Since 1991, the driving force behind the INTI has been the Washington, DC-based Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA). This powerful group of government and corporate interests has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying to bring the INTI to life and worked side by side with USDOT and its agencies to create it.
A look at its shockingly broad 500-organization membership base shows just how much clout is behind the push to create the information superhighway. Forty-three of the 50 state Departments of Transportation are members, including the North Carolina DOT. Dozens of transportation departments from large and medium-sized cities, including the Charlotte Area Transit System, are also members. So are most of the key corporate players in the transportation technology industry and America's big three auto manufacturers.
Though the membership of the Board of Directors changes every year with companies cycling on and off, over the last two years, ITSA's board members have included executives from General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Company, and executives from the technology companies helping to develop the on-board units, including TransCore and Mark IV Industries. The board has also included federal transportation bureaucrats like Jeff Paniati, the Joint Program Office director. ITSA president and CEO Neil Schuster says the bulk of the group's $6 million annual budget comes from its corporate members, money that ITSA then turns around and uses to lobby Congress and the federal government for further development of the INTI.
So why haven't you heard about ITSA or the INTI? Until recently, most of the groundwork necessary to lay the foundation for the system has been highly technical and decidedly unsexy. That's because before industry leaders and government officials could hold the first transceiver in their hands or bury it inside the first automobile, they had to create a uniform language for the system and convince the Federal Communications Commission to set aside enough bandwidth to contain the massive amount of data a constant conversation between cars, the road and the system would produce.
A half-decade later, with the computer standards 90 percent complete and the bandwidth set aside by the FCC, they're on the brink of a transportation revolution.
To most drivers, the above probably sounds pretty far-fetched. National databases to track our every move? A national network of government-controlled traffic management centers that use wireless technology for traffic surveillance by 2022? But the reality is that much of the technology and infrastructure needed to bring the system to life has already been put in place.
In the old days, if you turned on your windshield wipers, power just went to the wipers. But in the cars of today, a miniature self-contained computer system of sensors and actuators controls the wipers and just about everything else the car does. All that information winds up on something inside your car called a data bus.
"We have the ability to communicate essentially any of the vehicle information that's on that data bus, typically encompassing the state of about 200 sensors and actuators," said Dave Acton, an ITS consultant to General Motors. "Anything that's available on the bus is just content to the system, so you could send anything."
For automakers and tech companies, the databus is a goldmine of information that can be transmitted via imbedded cell phone or GPS technology. This year alone, 2 million cars in General Motors' fleet were equipped with the GPS technology that would enable customers to subscribe to OnStar-type services if they choose. Eventually, says Acton, all cars will likely be equipped with it.
But the same technology installed in GM's fleet is also capable of transmitting the car's location and speed to any government agency or corporate entity that wants it without the driver knowing, whether they subscribe to OnStar-type services or not.
Though government-run transportation centers across the country are not yet collecting the data, Acton predicts they will begin to within the next decade.
Ann Lorscheider agrees. She's the manager of the Metrolina Region Transportation Management center on Tipton Drive in Charlotte.
At the center off Statesville Avenue, traffic management specialists stare at dozens of television screens mounted on a massive wall, watching for accidents or anything out of the ordinary. From their workstations, they surveil 200 interstate miles, including I-77 from the South Carolina state line to US 901 in Iredell and I-85 from the state line into Cabarrus County.
When they need to, they can swivel the cameras mounted along the interstate or zoom in to get a better look at an accident. Sensors in the road constantly dump data back to the center on traffic patterns and speed. A system based on predictive algorithms tells them if a traffic pattern signals a potential problem.
The cameras and the sensors were installed by the state in 2000, at a cost of $41 million. Traffic management centers like the one Lorscheider runs can now be found in just about every major to mid-sized city or region across the country, most constructed in over the last decade or so.
News reports show that over the last five years alone, there has been an explosion in the construction of these centers. During that time, over 100 such centers have opened across the country, part of a boom driven by the USDOT and its sub-agency, the Federal Highway Administration, which has secured funding to help bring the centers to life.
"They're booming," said Lorscheider. "They're all over the place now."
Everywhere they've opened, the centers have decreased response time to accidents and slashed, sometimes by as much as half, the number of law enforcement personnel needed to respond to accidents and get traffic moving again. Congestion and travel times have also improved.
This all sounds fine and safety-centered. But in the future envisioned by USDOT and ITSA in federal documents, the centers will be far more than a handy congestion management tool. They'll form the very hub of the INTI itself, interacting with regional and national traffic centers and, ultimately, with immense national databases run in partnership with the private sector that will cull data from vehicles, crunch and archive it.
To bring the INTI to life the way the government plans, the system will have to do far more than use GPS technology to transmit where cars have been and what they did along the way. Cars will need to swap information instantaneously with each other and with roadside readers at highway speeds in real time, something today's GPS technology can't do. To solve the problem, the federal government is pushing back the boundaries of wireless technology to create devices that can make the vision possible. Using something called Dedicated Short Range Communications, or DSRC, the transceivers the government is developing would allow cars to carry on simultaneous conversations with each other and with corresponding roadside units, sending messages or warnings throughout the transportation management system instantly.
These "conversations" could prevent collisions or stop drivers from running off the road, while giving transportation managers an instantaneous view of road and weather conditions. With a DSRC transceiver and GPS technology in every car, automakers believe they can wipe out nearly all automobile fatalities in the US. It's a goal they call the Zero Fatalities Vision.
"There is a basic consensus that we have to change the safety paradigm," said Chris Wilson, Vice President of ITS Strategy and Programs at DaimlerChrysler Research and Technology North America, Inc. "Everything we've done up until now -- airbags, seatbelts -- was to mitigate accidents once they occur. Now we're looking to prevent accidents. To do that we need live vehicle-to-vehicle communication and vehicle-to-vehicle infrastructure."
The tantalizing prospect of saving thousands of lives comes with a heavy price. The same technology that will allow cars to talk to each other in real time would also allow the government and ultimately private business to use the INTI to track every move American drivers make -- and profit from it.
This is the dark side of the information superhighway, the one executives and federal bureaucrats don't like to talk about. That's probably because they know it's entirely possible to use the technology the government is developing to prevent fatal collisions without harvesting information from automobiles and archiving it.
For all their talk about saving lives, there's ample evidence that the driving force behind the push to develop the national information superhighway is to profit from the data it collects. Both the corporations and the government -- including the more than 40 state departments of transportation that are members of ITSA -- stand to eventually rake in billions in revenues if they can bring the system to life. (See sidebar, "A Marketer's Dream.")
But first, they must find a way to harvest and archive the data.
That's where the ADUS, or Archived Data User Service, project comes in. For the last five years, while they were laying the foundation for the INTI, USDOT and ITSA have also begun setting standards for the massive databases that will collect and archive information.
According to federal documents, when it's completed, the brain of the INTI will essentially be a string of interconnected regional and national databases, swapping, processing and storing data on our travels it will collect from devices in our cars.
According to the "ITS Vision Statement" the Federal Highway Administration published in 2003, by 2022, each private "travel customer" will have their own "user profile" on the system that includes regular travel destinations, their route preferences, and any pay-for-service subscriptions they use.
Neil Schuster, president and CEO of ITSA, further clarified that goal in a recent interview with Creative Loafing.
"In fact, when we talk about this, the US government is talking about creating a national database, because where cars are has to go into a database," Schuster said.
Most INTI enthusiasts, like Schuster, insist that the lives potentially saved by this technology are worth giving up some privacy.
"When I get on an airplane everyone in the system knows where I am," said Schuster. "They know which tickets I bought. You could probably go back through United Airlines and find out everywhere I traveled in the last year. Do I worry about that? No. We've decided that airline safety is so important that we're going to put a transponder in every airplane and track it. We know the passenger list of every airplane and we're tracking these things so that planes don't crash into each other. Shouldn't we have that same sense of concern and urgency about road travel? The average number of fatalities each year from airplanes is less than 100. The average number of deaths on the highway is 42,000. I think we've got to enter the debate as to whether we're willing to change that in a substantial way and it may be that we have to allow something on our vehicles that makes our car safer. . . I wouldn't mind some of this information being available to make my roads safer so some idiot out there doesn't run into me."
Schuster insists that drivers shouldn't worry about the government storing information about their travels because personal identifying information would be stripped from it.
"They're not going to archive all of the data, they're going to archive the data they need," Schuster said. "They want origin, they want destination, they want what route that vehicle took. They don't want the personal information that goes with that because it's useless to them."
Schuster's words would be more reassuring if they didn't contradict planning documents authored by his organization and USDOT.
ITSA's own website on ADUS says data archived by INTI databases will include "vehicle and passenger data." So does the USDOT's Ten-Year-Plan. In fact, according to ITSA's own privacy principles, which are printed on its website, transportation systems will collect personal information, but only that information that's relevant for "intelligent transportation system" purposes.
"ITS, respectful of the individual's interest in privacy, will only collect information that contains individual identifiers that are needed for the ITS service functions," the site reads. "Furthermore, ITS information systems will include protocols that call for the purging of individual identifier information that is no longer needed to meet ITS needs."
In other words, identifying information will be purged when government and corporate users no longer have a need for it, not when it becomes a privacy issue for an individual driver.
Everyone Creative Loafing spoke to for this article, and every federal document we examined, insisted that safeguards would be put in place to protect this data. So far, though, no one has been able to specify exactly how these safeguards will work.
It's a problem Eric Skrum, Communications Director for the National Motorists Association, is familiar with.
"Information on this is awfully hard to get and it's also very conflicting, where one hand will be telling you one thing and the other will be saying oh no, we wouldn't possibly be doing that," Skrum said.
It's a problem Creative Loafing ran into as well. For instance, Schuster insists that the data the system will eventually collect won't be used to issue people speeding tickets or other traffic citations.
But according to ITSA's own privacy principles, the information won't be shared with law enforcement -- until states pass laws allowing it. In fact, the US Department of Justice and USDOT are already working on a plan to share the data ITS systems collect with law enforcement. It's called the USDOT/DOJ Joint Initiative For Intelligent Transportation & Public Safety Systems, and its aim is to coordinate the integration of the system with police and law enforcement systems by developing the software and technical language that will allow them to communicate.
After Sept. 11, ITSA and USDOT added a homeland security addendum to their 10-year plan. The system, through wireless surveillance and automated tracking of the users of our transportation system, could bolster Homeland Security efforts, it said.
Sensors deployed in vehicles and the infrastructure could "identify suspicious vehicles," "detect disruptions" and "detect threatening behavior" by drivers, according to the addendum. Those who take public transit wouldn't escape monitoring, either. The addendum suggests "developing systems for public transit tracking to monitor passenger behavior."
So who will control the information transmitted by the on-board units? That's still up in the air, too. Like the black boxes now installed in cars that record data before a crash that can later be used against the driver, it's possible that the on-board units will be installed in new cars before the legal issues surrounding the data they collect are fully resolved, says one industry insider.
Robert Kelly, a wireless communications legal expert who has acted as legal council to ITSA, says privacy law will have to evolve with the technology. In other words, privacy issues probably won't be resolved until the technology is already in place. Legislatures and Congress will have to guide how everyone from law enforcement to corporations use the data and exactly what information they have access to, Kelly said.
But again, with privacy organizations largely in the dark and the development of the system hurtling forward, the question is how much influence, if any, privacy advocates will be able to wield before these devices are installed on the first future fleet of cars.
That's part of what frustrates Skrum, the National Motorists Association communications director. "Because this is being done behind closed doors to a certain extent, the public isn't really going to have much to say about it," said Skrum.
The good news is that there's still time for the public to weigh in. It will take USDOT at least three more years of development and consumer testing before the first prototype "on-board unit" is ready. In the meantime, the federal government, automakers and the state departments of transportation will have to hash out a couple of billion-dollar details. So far, the government has borne nearly all the cost of developing the on-board units. But that will soon change. For the system to work, automakers must sign on to mass produce the on-board units and install them in cars, a move that will cost billions.
At the same time, the government must install the roadside readers to transmit the messages cars send, or the on-board units will be useless. So to bring the system to life, the government must spend millions, if not billions, on roadside units to communicate with cars at roughly the same time automakers begin installing the on-board units.
As Japan, Europe and foreign carmakers dash to develop similar technology, US automakers are under tremendous pressure. This is creating something of a chicken and egg situation. Given the nature of federal and state transportation budgets, the rollout of roadside units is likely to be gradual, starting at select trouble spots across the nation. But automakers say they need a mass deployment to make their effort worthwhile. They want to see a rollout of at least 400,000 roadside readers over about a three-year period.
A decision is currently slated for 2008, when automakers and the USDOT plan to come together to hash out a deployment strategy. At stake will be billions of dollars -- both in investments and profits. If the government and automakers can agree on a deployment plan, technology companies are expected to begin investing more heavily in the further development of programs the technology will enable.
ITSA projects that $209 billion could be invested in intelligent transportation technology between now and the year 2011 -- with 80 percent of that investment coming from the private sector in the form of consumer products and services.
Jean-Claude Thill, a professor at the University of Buffalo who specializes in transportation and geographic information systems, says he believes the system will be deployed, just not as fast as car makers would like.
"It's not going to happen all at once," said Thill. "Look at cell phones. Right now in large urban areas you have a high density of cell towers so you have good coverage. If you venture on the interstate your signal gets weak and sometimes you lose it. You can't expect this to be different."
Thill says he believes the automobile manufacturers are playing hardball with the government to make sure the infrastructure is put in place quickly.
"I think the automobile manufacturers will do it," said Thill. "There is money in it. I think as the market develops in large urban areas, they will see that it is in their interest to get on the wagon. But nothing is going to happen until they are on board."
From the government's perspective, the good news is that a few sensors in a few cars and a little GPS technology can go a long way.
"Only a relatively small percentage of the approximately 260 million vehicles on US roads today need to be equipped with communication devices for the system to start producing useful data," said Bill Jones, the Technical Director of the USDOT's ITS Joint Project Office in a speech to the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board in January. "With 14 to 15 million new vehicles sold in the US each year, within two years you can have 10 percent of all vehicles equipped. We already know from our previous studies that a vehicle probe saturation of less than 10 percent can provide good information."
Contact Tara Servatius at email@example.com
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