E-ZPass Tracks Motorists Outside Of Toll Booths

By Cindy Weightman, WBGO News
Bergen County. March 24, 2014

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Puking Monkey shows off his E-ZPass reader detection device.

I’m driving around Bergen County.  That sound you’re hearing is a device that alerts you any time your E-ZPass tag is scanned.  The problem is that it’s going off like crazy and there isn’t a toll booth in sight.  The device was created by a man who is protective of his privacy, but still wanted an alias that makes a splash.  His cover name is Puking Monkey.  Our ride takes us on the feeder roads surrounding the George Washington Bridge including Routes 46 and 4 in Fort Lee and up the northbound side of the Palisades Parkway and all the while this detector keeps going off, even though during that entire time, we didn’t go near a single toll booth.

“We’re leaving the GW.  It’s right up over the road.  There’s two on the inbound side and one on the outbound side.  It’s hanging right below the signing,” Puking Monkey said.

The question on my mind is who or what agency is behind this?  And can your E-ZPass really be used to spy on you? And the answer is yes.

The E-ZPass terms and conditions, found on the agency’s website, don’t say anything about tracking motorists.  A spokesman for the New York City Department of Transportation declined to comment on tape but he did confirm that the agency uses antennas to monitor E-ZPass tags as part of a traffic monitoring project along 42nd Street.   They’re not the only ones collecting data from your E-ZPass tag.

Matt Edelman is the executive director of Transcom, the leading traffic management agency in the region.  He says they’ve been doing this for about 20 years.  Transcom currently keep tabs on some three-thousand-miles of roads in New York City, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Edelman says motorists should not be worried about their privacy because Transcom’s agreement with E-ZPass mandates that its technology only be used for traffic monitoring, not law enforcement purposes.

“So the permission that we had to use the E-ZPass tags for traffic management was based on strict privacy controls and guarantees of anonymity and that agreement and understanding with them is based on that.”

Edelman says that even during a national emergency, the privacy of motorists is protected.

“There is nothing we can share because the tag’s identities are scrambled and furthermore the travel times we get are based on aggregations of vehicles from reader to reader.  There’s nothing that can be obtained.  It’s basically travel time information.”

Those reassurances are not enough for Donna Lieberman from the New York Civil Liberties Union.  She says the system is ripe for abuse and it’s no one’s business where we are going when we are not doing anything suspicious.

“We’re being watched in ways that I think none of use would have imagined and it’s happening without any public scrutiny, without any decision that’s consistent with checks and balances.”

Earlier this year, the NYCLU sent off formal legal requests to the Department of Transportation for both New York state and New York City demanding information on how E-ZPass readers are used to track and record New Yorkers’ movements. 

Lieberman says it’s unnerving to think that Big Brother or whatever marketing company it’s connected to has a better record of our comings and goings than we do.  She also says that people should be concerned that the information could be used for improper purposes.

“I think marketing based on E-ZPass information is an improper purpose.  I think political surveillance is an improper purpose.  And New Yorkers have a right to know what the purpose is, whether it’s improper and the right to insist that our elected officials reign in this practice.”

For those who are protective of their privacy, such as hackers like the guy who goes by the handle Puking Monkey, being tracked can be a very disconcerting thing.

“How could it benefit me, not knowing who has the data and how long they keep it?”

photo of e z pass detectorEspecially since he himself was able to crack the technology so easily.

“I took my E-ZPass. Figured out how to let me know when it was transmitting, then I reverse engineered the E-ZPass protocol radio.  This is actually just a receiving radio because to do that…to detect it also means you’re giving yourself away.  You can’t detect it and not. This just detects the signal.  It’s looking for the E-ZPass to say,  “hey are you there?”  (photo at right of EZ Pass detector, sitting on the dashboard, ready to go.  Puking Monkey incorporated it into a Christmas ornament that looks like a cow. )

In a post 9-11 world, is this something that we’ve gotten more used to?  In a day and age when video surveillance is becoming more common and the knowledge that the NSA is monitoring our emails, have we all accepted that nothing is private anymore?  According to a recent Associated Press-GfK poll, in the wake of recent leaks about government surveillance programs, more Americans say that they value their privacy over the government’s efforts to keep us safer from terrorists.  After chatting with some motorists at the Vince Lombardi service area, I found that many people actually don’t seem too concerned about the E-ZPass tracking program.

Frank from Westwood says even if law enforcement was allowed to access the E-ZPass data, that would be a good thing.

“I have nothing to hide so I don’t see any problem with it. And it can be used advantageously in certain crime situations.  Information is good.”

Gerry from New York doesn’t agree.

“If they didn’t tell you up front that they were going to do it, it’s probably illegal and they shouldn’t be doing it.  Unless it’s in the small print someplace.  They shouldn’t be tracking you anywhere except when you pay the tolls and that’s it.  Simple.”

But for motorists like PJ Abramson from Mamaroneck, giving up E-ZPass would be the greater evil.

“There’s nothing I do that’s that bad that I’m worried about being tracked and the other issue is, how long do you want to stay in line?”

No one I spoke with is about to trade the convenience of E-ZPass for their privacy, but if you do want to keep your movements secret, there is one way to protect yourself without totally going off the grid.  The hacker who calls himself Puking Monkey had these words of advice and it has to do with the special storage bag E-ZPass gives you with your tag.

“If you don’t like it, like I said, all you have to do is put it in the bag and they can’t track it.  Just take it out at the tolls.  But the other thing with that is if they have both the toll data and the other data, they know you’re doing that so are you now a person of interest?”

Investigative reporting on WBGO is made possible by a grant from the Schumann Fund.  Do you have a tip for our investigative reporter?  Send us an email!


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