Big Brother in the Front Seat

As more and more states enact bans on texting while driving, officials frustrated with enforcing the bans might one day have a disturbing new tool in their kit. As Bob Sullivan reports for MSNBC:

Kapsch TrafficCom AG, an Austrian company that just signed a 10-year contract to provide in-car transponders such as the E-Z Pass to 22 electronic highway toll collection systems around the U.S., recently filed a patent on technology to add multi-function mini-cameras to their toll gadgets. Today, transponders are in about 22 million cars around the U.S. Adding inward and outward facing cameras to the gadgets would create surveillance capabilities far beyond anything government agencies have tried until now.

The stated reason for an inward-pointing camera is to verify the number of occupants in the car for enforcement of HOV and HOT lanes. The outward-pointing camera could be used for the same purpose, helping authorities enforce minimum occupant rules against drivers who aren't carrying transponders.

But it's easy to imagine other uses. The patent says the transponders would have the ability to store and transmit pictures, either at random intervals or on command from a central office. It would be tempting to use them as part of a search for a lost child, for example, and law enforcement officials might find the data treasure trove irresistible.

E-Z Pass and Kapsch claim there's no need to worry. "I just don't think it's something that would gain a lot of traction," P.J. Wilkins, executive director of the E-Z Pass group, told Sullivan.

On the other hand, Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Sullivan that people should voice their concerns right away:

Once you have the device out there, someone says, 'Why not use it for this, or that.' That's usually where the battle between privacy and other social goals is lost.

Whether you believe that distracted driving is a legitimate problem (and that government regulation is the solution) or not, the potential risks from letting the government constantly look inside our cars should not be ignored.

Read Reason's ongoing coverage of distracted driving laws here, here, and here.

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  • ChrisO||

    Y'know, it's shit like this that almost makes me want to take White Indian's silly advice and go totally off the grid.

    I wonder if Orwell and Huxley actually believed there was a chance of their fictional worlds becoming real.

  • Joe M||

    Creepy as hell, but isn't there a pretty easy way to defeat this? Just put a piece of opaque tape over the lens.

  • Nipplemancer||

    I'm pretty sure they'd make that a felony, for your own good of course.

  • Joe M||

  • ||

    And then they make it so that if you want to go through a toll booth, you have to have a transponder--no more cash payments.

    So then the choice is basically never drive on the highway, or let someone spy on the inside of your car. Awesome.

  • ||

    Shit's gotta stop somewhere. I have specifically avoided buying any new cars with black boxes that spy on me or contain automatic transponder things like On-Star for that reason. Another 20 years, and the'll probably take away our ability to do even that. At that point I hope to have escaped to some tropical island to live out my life.

  • ||

    We keep saying this shit's gotta stop somewhere, until the next time we say it.

    The people don't care and the government is hungrier and hungrier for more control, power, and money as it grows bigger and bigger.

    I mean, this shit has been been going up exponentially. It's not just Obama's fault. It's that the more power the government has, the more it wants. And in my opinion, once you pass a certain point, there's no stopping the runaway effect.

    I think we're past that point.

  • Joe M||

    So where does it end? A boot stomping on a human face, forever?

  • ||

    It ends when we have enough technology to fight back. That's what we need. Government defense devices.

  • ||

    It ends when people are not comfortable. It ends when--if--the government gets stupid and goes too far, and makes too many people's lives shitty or difficult because of all the control.

    If it's smart, it will make the sheep as comfortable as possible, and it will not end.

  • Joe M||

    So:
    Orwell = Revolution
    Huxley = Domination

  • ||

    If it doesn't stop, the best you can hope for is to get off the merry-go-round.

  • ||

    Space, bitches.

  • ||

    I wish...no, I'll probably have to become a hippy and live on an island or something. I hear Cayman is nice if you can afford the entry bribe.

  • ||

    Let's not be overmelodramatic. States don't even enforce speed limits using data from the toll transponders, which would be a ridiculously easy thing to implement (I could do it in a weekend ;-) ) and raise absolutely no privacy objections from reasonable people. And the transponders are totally optional in the first place.

    It's a huge leap to start talking about having cameras required in your car being used to spy on you 24/7.

  • Nipplemancer||

    just think, cash for clunkers cleared out a large number of cars without sophisticated computer systems on board. Your 20 year time frame may have been cut short by a few years because of that.

  • ||

    nah, there will always be some idiot keeping my future fleet of alfa romeo's and MG's running. Hell, through in a Fiat or two. If i ever get one of those 3d digital printers, I'll be set for eternity.

  • ||

    And then they make it so that if you want to go through a toll booth, you have to have a transponder--no more cash payments.

    Highly unlikely. They make a killing on the penalty charge for paying with cash (do recall that the folks collecting the tolls are usually private corporations).

  • ||

    Public: Never drive on the highway, or let someone spy on the inside of your car.
    Private: Always deal in cash or pay fees for use of checks, ATM debit cards, and credit cards.

    Tyranny is where you find it. We theoretically positioned government to counterbalance the plutocracy, so as to minimize tyranny of all sorts. But crony capitalism gives us tyranny that is worse than we'd ever see from either sector alone.

    Bitcoins are looking better and better, by the way.

  • wef||

    Bessie Wallis Warfield had it right.

    You can never be too safe or too servile.

  • kilroy||

    Car sex voyeurs FTW!

  • ||

    But it's easy to imagine other uses. The patent says the transponders would have the ability to store and transmit pictures, either at random intervals or on command from a central office. It would be tempting to use them as part of a search for a lost child, for example, and law enforcement officials might find the data treasure trove irresistible.

    If the data exists, it will be subject to subpeona.

    Allow this and you can kiss the last remnants of your privacy goodbye.

  • Mainer||

    So if you don't want the camera transponder...what are you hiding ?

  • Vermonter||

    Your wife's head in my lap.

  • ||

    The OBD that de-powers the passenger seat already knows whether that seat is occupied. No reason the same technology couldn't be used to determine how many seats are occupied. A camera isn't needed, if the transponder interfaced with the OBD.

    Patentable technology?

    CB

  • ||

    My car always flashes the "fasten passenger seat belt" light if I put a moderately loaded bag of groceries or backpack on the passenger seat. So methinks that would be easily defeated as an HOV enforcement tactic.

  • Joe M||

    I just realized my newish car was doing that a few weeks ago. Very odd.

  • Joe M||

    Oh except it's informing me that the air bag isn't turned on.

  • Reichsmarschall Mark||

    Ja! We can now have very much coziness vith you in your auto! This is good, ja?

    Und just think auf all der vays vee can extend kameras into dee rest of your life...

  • Michael||

    I am amused by the fact that this rash of texting while using the roadway laws (here in Chicago our wise overlords just forbid doing so while cycling) coincides almost perfectly with Apple's release of Siri. Just a few more examples like this and we might be able to determine an exact figure representing how far behind the times government operates.

  • irwin mann||

    Nothing I can't fix with a piece of tape.

  • Cytotoxic||

    If these were left unmanned say at night when no one's looking, couldn't a good citizen and his baseball bat take care of the transponders?

  • ||

    Ha! They can't stop me from paying a homeless person $7.50 to ride in the passenger seat so I can use the HOV.

  • jobo||

    Ride safe and comfortable cars, each passenger's greatest hope

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