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Howard Rheingold's Tomorrow

We Need Privacy Protection on Intelligent Highways
Howard Rheingold

Ominous steps have been taken recently, steps that perhaps move us all closer to a global surveillance state, but few people are aware of them. Governments around the world are installing "intelligent highways," whose snooping capabilities ought to concern every driver.

I recently remarked to my friend Peter, as he drove me around Geneva, that he is scrupulous about obeying the speed limit. He replied that he had on a previous occasion received in his mailbox an envelope containing a photograph of his automobile, the radar detector readout superimposed, along with a notice of his fine. On key Swiss roads, radar detectors automatically videotape speeders, computers automatically recognize the license plate number, check it against a database, and issue mail to the home address of the owner. It happens in Japan, too, and more and more locations around the world.

If my Swiss friend had not told me that story, the hair on the back of neck would not have started to stand up when I read the next day in the International Herald Tribune, that Kansas had become the tenth state to adopt electronic toll collection. Electronic transponders installed in vehicles automatically communicate with toll collecting machinery via radio, and tolls are automatically deducted from the driver's account. The following day, the same newspaper reported that Singapore had announced contracts to wire up the road system of the entire city-state. Singapore, never known as a bastion of civil liberties, will be able to track the location of every vehicle, and identify most drivers, on a minute-by-minute basis.

A government and private industry initiative now underway proposes multibillion dollar investments in "Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems" (IVHS) in the US. These systems, combining massive numbers of embedded sensors, video cameras, chips embedded in vehicles, and even satellite global positioning signals, are now under construction in every industrialized country. IVHS promise greater convenience and perhaps safety by monitoring highway traffic, routing around jams, and automatically collecting tolls. If these systems are not designed with the privacy of citizens in mind, however, we might be buying a heap of surveillance capabilities for future secret police. This is a technology policy issue where informed groups of citizens can have an impact if we act now. It isn't a matter of banning the technology. It's a matter of making sure today that these systems are designed with the privacy of future citizens in mind.

One of the best sources of information about the social impact of IVHS comes from Professor Phil Agre at the University of California, San Diego. Agre stated recently:

"Society may decide that it wishes to provide law enforcement with generalized abilities to track citizens' movements, but this would clearly be a grave decision - one that should be discussed well in advance rather than building the technical capabilities into ITS systems with virtually no public discussion."

There is a technical fix that could give drivers conveniences without compromising privacy. Encryption techniques make it possible to transmit account information from an automobile without disclosing the identity of the owner.

The technology won't work for us if it is not widely used, which means the future of privacy means helping create a market for encryption-enabled transponders. Agree points out that right now, at the beginning of the intelligent highway building era, it is critically important that the early majority of transponder manufacturers build encryption capabilities into their devices. Making privacy a standard will work far better than attempts at legislative regulation after the market has settled on a standard.

Agre's report from November, 1994 is a good introduction to the issues surrounding Intelligent Transportation Systems. To access his whimsically-named but extremely useful "Red Rock Eater News Service" via e-mail, send a message to, with the Subject line reading: Subscribe: Your name.

We still have time to do something about this one. We need to ask manufacturers now to consider the importance of building privacy protection into their technology. I support Agre's statement:

"People need to use roads to participate in the full range of associations (educational, political, social, religious, labor, charitable, etc) that make up a free society. If we turn the roads into a zone of total surveillance then we chill that fundamental right and undermine the very foundation of freedom."

  • For another take on Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems, read Jamais Cascio's Future Surf.

librarybob said:

I think it would be useful to distinguish between "innate ability" and "the result after many years of acculturation and schooling" to define "dumb". I wouldn't think it likely that there has been an innate (genetic) change, so that if people have indeed been dumbed down, it must be due to environmental causes. Actually, maybe "dumbed down" isn't quite right--maybe very committed to "low" and "mid" culture that really doesn't demand much thinking. A problem I see is that both of these are "ahistoric," living in the here and now with little sense of a past and little sense of a future. They lack a larger context.

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"Society may decide that it wishes to provide law enforcement with generalized abilities to track citizens' movements, but this would clearly be a grave decision - one that should be discussed well in advance rather than building the technical capabilities into ITS systems with virtually no public discussion."

-- Phil Agre

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