(San Antonio, TX - Tuesday, June 2) At a recent stakeholders meeting on the I-35 bypass study, it came to light that a consultant hired by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) used a Bluetooth reader to collect the trip origination and destination data involuntarily from innocent travelers. Such data mining by government invades a motorist's privacy and violates one's Constitutional rights.
"Whether it was TxDOT or its consultant doesn't matter, it's all being done with taxpayer dollars and for a government agency. Didn't they learn from the NSA wiretapping scandal how much Americans detest government spying on the private lives of innocent, law-abiding citizens?" notes Terri Hall, Founder and Director of Texans for Toll-free Highways and Texas TURF.
When pressed, the consultant claimed the data could not be traced back to individuals, but since the data was collected via Bluetooth enabled smartphones, it's not hard to trace a phone number back to a specific individual. They gave no assurances that this data was being discarded after the trip information was collected and no assurances that this data isn't being given to or sold to other entities for other uses, particularly law enforcement agencies.
"No matter what excuse they come up with, warrantless snooping and tracking is a violation of our rights. They need to get consent," contends Hall.
From checkpoints to covert snooping
Just a few years ago when it was collecting trip information for the US 281 and Loop 1604 toll projects, TxDOT set-up checkpoints where its consultants asked motorists to voluntarily provide trip origin and destination information. But after getting flack for the checkpoints and being called the 'gestapo,' now it has turned to covert, involuntary collection of information on Texans' travel patterns.
The data includes time of day and location information which could be used for ill against those travelers - whether by 4th amendment violations by law enforcement or by a criminal element should the information fall into the hands of those wishing to prey on those travelers.
Think about it. With this data, any common criminal could figure out where the smartphone owner lives and see when they're not home and break in to their house. Someone could lie in wait for a vulnerable female when she arrives at work or on an errand or at home in the dark. Third parties are known to sell such information and TxDOT nor its consultant had no answers as to where it derived its authority to do this or whether this information is protected from its contractor selling or disclosing this information to others.
TURF and Texans for Toll-free Highways asked TxDOT to give an immediate accounting of why the decision was made to collect involuntary trip information for this I-35 bypass study using a private contractor, where this information is being stored and for how long, if this information is being barred from disclosure to any other entities (whether public or private), and when and how this information will be discarded.
Past infringements met with swift legislative action
In 2007, TxDOT came under fire for keeping a database of all license plates that used its toll roads, allowing travel data to be collected unbeknownst to the vehicle owners with no protection from the data being sold to private parties. The outrage prompted former San Antonio State Representative David Leibowitz to pass a bill to prohibit such information from being sold to private parties. House Bill 570 specifically states that license plate information gathered manually or by automated enforcement technology can only be used for toll collection, toll collection enforcement, and law enforcement purposes, and can not be sold to private entities for commercial purposes. There is no such law to protect travelers from trip data collected by Bluetooth readers.
Hall concludes, "It's too bad this revelation didn't come to light in time for a bill to be filed in the Texas legislature that concluded its 84th session yesterday. But rest assured, there will be legislation at the earliest opportunity to protect Texans from such an infringement on their individual rights. Indeed, TxDOT should cease and desist immediately on its own."
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