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May 8, 2013 / News

Big Brother has it ‘E-Z’: City now tracking cars through local streets thanks to E-ZPass

BIG BROTHER?: The city has installed E-ZPass readers such as this one throughout Brooklyn, tracking cars — and possibly their drivers — as the pass beneath.
Brooklyn Daily

The traffic lights are listening, and officials are being mum about it.

The city has quietly installed electronic devices at busy intersections that use E-ZPass technology to collect data on cars — and possibly their drivers — as they pass below, The Brooklyn Paper has learned.

The innocuous looking white boxes have been popping up on the same poles that hold traffic lights for the last few months, and are, according to the city, checking the speed and volume of traffic as it passes through thanks to the handy E-ZPass device that sticks on many Brooklynites’ windshields that allows them to breeze through tolls at area bridges and on highways.

Brooklyn Paper reporters noticed at least three different E-ZPass readers next to lights Downtown, one at the intersection of Boerum Place and Atlantic Avenue, another is at Tillary Street and the Flatbush Avenue extension, and a third on Atlantic Avenue near the Barclays Center.

The boxes aren’t limited to Brooklyn, having been installed all over the city by the Department of Transportation.

Representatives of the agency refused multiple requests by this paper to provide a list of where the tracking devices are, and no record of them appears on the agency’s website, which does list the 320 cameras it has installed on streets throughout the city to monitor traffic.

Multiple spokespeople for the Department of Transportation told us that the new devices were use to collect “aggregate data,” and that the devices weren’t being used to charge drivers with traffic violations such as speeding or running red lights.

The department runs the program independent of the E-ZPass Center that is cooperatively run by MTA Bridges and Tunnels, the Port Authority, and the New York State Thruway Authority. The agency wouldn’t say if information it collected came solely to it, or if it was shared with other agencies or any private third parties.

This newspaper requested the agency provide us with a list of locations where the devices have been installed in Brooklyn, but it failed to do so by press time.

Civil liberties advocates say they are concerned about what, exactly, the city is listening for.

“When they say that it is done for aggregate purposes, that sounds suspiciously vague,” said lawyer Norman Siegel, the former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Siegel said that the E-ZPass records could wind up being used in litigation where cars and their drivers are tracked from one place to another through information gathered by the new devices. In fact, EZ-Pass technology has already been used for such a purpose, but that information was gathered while cars is pass through a toll — a moment when drivers know they’re being watched.

In the absence of more information about how the technology is being used, Siegel said, it’s difficult to tell whether or not this is an invasion of privacy.

“[Tracking technology] is a growing area for civil liberties concerns at this point,” he said.

Reach reporter Jaime Lutz at jlutz@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8310. Follow her on Twitter @jaime_lutz.

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Reader Feedback

Arlene from Coney Island says:
This is outrageous beyond belief. This is Big Brother at work. It's definately an invasion of privacy. In my opinion, this is an attempt to track New Yorkers and how much they drive and to where. We don't need anyone telling us where we can and can't travel to. The crazy environmentalists don't want us driving cars. They want us to ride bikes. What about people with disabilities like me and my husband who can't ride bikes and also the elderly? They should be ashamed of themselves. We're not criminals. This system is like wearing a tracking device. SHAME ON THEM!
May 11, 2013, 6:30 pm
Henry from Sheepshead Bay says:
The sensors are all along the Belt Parkway as well!
May 11, 2013, 11 pm
Philip from Kensington says:
If you're just driving around the city and not going through a tunnel or over a bridge, why not take your EZ pass and put it in the envelope that came with it and stick it in your glove box? If you put it in that special metallic envelope it's not supposed to register. Or at least that's what they say. I usually go weeks when I don't use EZ Pass so that's doable for me.
May 12, 2013, 7:19 am
Chris from Queens says:
The sensors on highway are used to compile speed data that is used to make the travel time estimates you see posted on those signs. As far as streets, that's just nanny Bloomberg compiling more and more data to justify more bike lanes. Police and law enforcement have no access to this data.
Sept. 26, 2013, 8:25 am
Kevin from Greenpoint says:
Sound like the conspiracy theorists are out in force. I think that we all need to lighten up. Who cares, unless you are doing something illegal. Cheating on the wife, not actually at work, or perhaps really not sick on a sick day. Norman Siegel has always a problem with everything accept his own office. So New Yorkers relax and enjoy the autum days.
Sept. 27, 2013, 10:18 pm

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