19
Okt
2005

STATES SEEKING TO TRACK CELL PHONES FOR TRAFFIC CONDITIONS

by David A. Lieb
Associated Press October 8, 2005

//www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/news/local/12849605.htm

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - Driving to work with your cell phone on, you notice the traffic beginning to slow down. Instantly and unbeknown to you, the government senses your delay and flashes a traffic congestion update over Web sites and electronic road signs.

Other motorists take heed, diverting to alternative routes or allowing more time for their trips.

Futuristic as it may seem, the scenario actually is pretty close to becoming reality.

In what would be the largest project of its kind, the Missouri Department of Transportation is negotiating with private contractors to monitor thousands of cell phones, using their movements to produce real-time traffic conditions on 5,500 miles of roads statewide.

Cell phone users won't even know anyone's watching them. But transportation and technology leaders assure there is no need to worry -- the data will remain anonymous, leaving no possibility of tracking specific people from their driveway to their destination.

"There is absolutely no privacy threat whatsoever," said Pete Rahn, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation.

But privacy advocates are uneasy.

"Even though its anonymous, it's still ominous," said Daniel Solove, a privacy law professor at George Washington University and author of the book, "The Digital Person." "It troubles me, because it does show this movement toward using a technology to track people."

Cell phone monitoring already is being used by transportation officials in Baltimore, though not yet to relay traffic conditions to the public. Similar projects are getting under way in Norfolk, Va., and a stretch of Interstate
75 between Atlanta and Macon, Ga.

But the Missouri project is by far the most aggressive -- tracking wireless phones across a whole state, including in rural areas with lower traffic counts, and doing so for the explicit purpose of relaying the information to other travelers.

"This will be the biggest system in the world, assuming our contract ends up similar to what's in the request" from the department, said Richard Mudge, vice president of Delcan NET, the Ontario, Canada-based company that won the Missouri bid and is currently negotiating the contract details.

Governments have had the ability to measure traffic volumes and speeds for years. They can embed sensors in pavement, or mount scanners and cameras along the road. But those monitoring methods require the installation of equipment, which then must be maintained, and can take only a snapshot of traffic at that particular spot.

"The traffic community has been really excited for quite some time about the possibility of being able to use cell phones to track vehicles," said Valerie Briggs, program manager for transportation operations at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "Almost everyone has a cell phone, so you have a lot of potential data points, and you can track data almost anywhere on the whole (road) system."

Although some new cell phones come equipped with Global Positioning System capabilities that can pinpoint the exact location of phones, the tracking technology used for transportation agencies does not depend on that to work.

Instead, it takes the frequent signals that wireless phones send to towers and follows the movement of the phones from one tower to another. Then it overlays that movement with highway maps to determine what road the phones are on and how fast they are moving. Lumping dozens, hundreds or thousands of those signals together can measure traffic flow.

A Delcan NET demonstration Web site developed for Baltimore uses various shades of green, yellow and red to show block-by-block whether vehicles are moving at or below the speed limits. As rush hour started on a recent work day, observers could watch as green turned to yellow and then red on roads heading out of downtown.

The Baltimore project began this spring as a pilot program that monitors Cingular cell phone users over about 1,000 miles of road. A Delcan NET competitor, Atlanta-based AirSage Inc., has an agreement with Sprint to monitor phones for its projects in Georgia and Virginia.

"What we're hoping and assuming is that we're going to be able to continue collecting the information over time and eventually deploy it statewide," said Mike Zezeski, director of real-time traffic operations for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Rahn hopes to make a similar Web site available to Missouri motorists, and to post estimated travel times on electronic road signs. The Missouri and Maryland plans also assume the contractor will market more detailed information to the private sector -- automakers that offer onboard navigation systems, cell phone companies, shipping businesses or media that broadcast rush-hour traffic reports.

The private sector marketing helps drive down the states' cost. Missouri expects to spend less than $3 million a year on the service, Rahn said, although the exact price won't be known until the contract is final. Maryland is spending just $1.5 million, although the entire Baltimore project costs more than $5 million, Zezeski said.

Although there apparently are no plans to do so, the Electronic Privacy Information Center suggests that someone should notify cell phone owners that their phones are being monitored for traffic data. Privacy experts also worry that the traffic monitoring could later evolve into other uses -- perhaps to catch speeders or fugitives.

"It's a mission creep issue that would be of most concern to consumers," said Lillie Coney, associate director of Washington, D.C.-based electronic privacy center. "They may start out saying we want to know if there's a traffic problem and then take that information and start using it for different purposes."

Adds Solove, the privacy professor: "I look in the future and I see, `Wow, this is just another one in the class of ways that people can be tracked.'"


ON THE NET

AASHTO: //www.aashto.org
Missouri: //www.modot.mo.gov
Maryland: //www.mdot.state.md.us


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