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Driving in the Surveillance Society: Cameras, RFID tags and Black Boxes...

Posted by Maria Xynou at Mar 26, 2013 10:50 AM |
In this post, Maria Xynou looks at red light cameras, RFID tags and black boxes used to monitor vehicles in India.
Driving in the Surveillance Society: Cameras, RFID tags and Black Boxes...

Source: katmeresin on flickr


This research was undertaken as part of the 'SAFEGUARDS' project that CIS is undertaking with Privacy International and IDRC.


How many times in your life have you heard of people been involved in car accidents and of pedestrians being hit by red-light-running vehicles? What if there could be a solution for all of this? Well, several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Singapore, have already adopted measures to tackle vehicle accidents and fatalities, some of which include traffic enforcement cameras and other security measures. India is currently joining the league by not only installing red light cameras, but by also including radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on vehicles´ number plates, as well as by installing electronic toll collection systems and black boxes in some automobiles. Although such measures could potentially increase our safety, privacy concerns have arisen as it remains unclear how data collected will be used.

Red light cameras

Last week, the Chennai police announced that it plans to install traffic enforcement cameras, otherwise known as red light cameras, at 240 traffic signals over the next months, in order to put an end to car thefts in the city. Red light cameras, which capture images of vehicles entering an intersection against a red traffic light, have been installed in Bangalore since early 2008 and a study indicates that they have reduced the traffic violation rates. A 2003 report by the National Cooperative Highway Research Programme (NCHRP) examined studies from the previous 30 years in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore and concluded that red light cameras ´improve the overall safety of intersections when they are used´.

However, how are traffic violation rates even measured? According to Barbara Langland Orban, an associate professor of health policy and management at the University of South Florida:

“Safety is measured in crashes, in particular injury crashes, and violations are not a proxy for injuries. Also, violations can be whatever number an agency chooses to report, which is called an ‘endogenous variable’ in research and not considered meaningful as the number can be manipulated. In contrast, injuries reflect the number of people who seek medical care, which cannot be manipulated by the reporting methods of jurisdictions.”

Last year,  the Bombay state government informed the High Court that the 100 CCTV cameras installed at traffic junctions in 2006-2007 were unsuitable for traffic enforcement because they lacked the capacity of automatic processing. Nonetheless, red light cameras, which are capable of monitoring speed and intersections with stop signals, are currently being proliferated in India. Yet, questions remain: Do red light cameras adequately increase public safety? Do they serve financial interests? Do they violate driver´s due-process rights?

RFID tags and Black Boxes

A communication revolution is upon us, as Maharashtra state transport department is currently including radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on each and every number plate of vehicles. This ultimately means that the state will be able to monitor your vehicle´s real-time movement and track your whereabouts. RFID tags are not only supposedly used to increase public safety by tracking down offenders, but to also streamline public transport timetables. Thus, the movement of buses and cars would be precisely monitored and would provide passengers minute-to-minute information at bus stops. Following the 2001 amendment of Rule 50 of the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989, new number plates with RFID tags have been made mandatory for all types of motor vehicles throughout India.

RFID technology has also been launched at Maharashtra´s state border check-posts. Since last year, the state government has been circulating RFID stickers to trucks, trailers and tankers, which would not only result in heavy goods vehicles not having to wait in long queues for clearance at check-posts, but would also supposedly put an end to corruption by RTO officials.

By 31 March 2014, it is estimated that RFID-based electronic toll collection (ETC) systems will be installed on all national highways in India. According to Dr. Joshi, the Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways:

The RFID technology shall expedite the clearing of traffic at toll plazas and the need of carrying cash shall also be eliminated when toll plazas shall be duly integrated with each other throughout India.”

Although Dr. Joshi´s mission to create a quality highway network across India and to increase the transparency of the system seems rational, the ETC system raises privacy concerns, as it uniquely identifies each vehicle, collects data and provides general vehicle and traffic monitoring. This could potentially lead to a privacy violation, as India currently lacks adequate statutory provisions which could safeguard the use of our data from potential abuse. All we know is that our vehicles are being monitored, but it remains unclear how the data collected will be used, shared and retained, which raises concerns.

The cattle and pedestrians roaming the streets in India appear to have increased the need for the installation of an Event Data Recorder (EDR), otherwise known as a black box, which is a device capable of recording information related to crashes or accidents. The purpose of a black box is to record the speed of the vehicle at the point of impact in the case of an accident and whether the driver had applied the brakes. This would help insurance companies in deciding whether or not to entertain insurance claims, as well as to determine whether a driver is responsible for an accident.

Black boxes for vehicles are already being designed, tested and installed in some vehicles in India at an affordable cost. In fact, manufacturers in India have recommended that the government make it mandatory for cars to be fitted with the device, rather than it being optional. But can we have privacy when our cars are being monitored? This is essentially a case of proactive monitoring which has not been adequately justified yet, as it remains unclear how information would be used, who would be authorised to use and share such information, and whether its use would be accounted for to the individual.

Are monitored cars safer?

The trade-off is clear: the privacy and anonymity of our movement is being monitored in exchange for the provision of safety. But are we even getting any safety in return? According to a 2005 Federal Highway Administration study, although it shows a decrease in  front-into-side crashes at intersections with cameras, an increase in rear-end crashes has also been proven. Other studies of red light cameras in the US have shown that more accidents have occurred since the installation of traffic enforcement cameras at intersections. Although no such research has been undertaken in India yet, the effectiveness, necessity and utility of red light cameras remain ambiguous.

Furthermore, there have been claims that the installation of red light cameras, ETCs, RFID tags, black boxes and other technologies do not primarily serve the purpose of public security, but financial gain. A huge debate has arisen in the United States on whether such monitoring of vehicles actually improves safety, or whether its primary objective is to serve financial interests. Red light cameras have already generated about $1.5 million in fines in the Elmwood village of Ohio, which leads critics to believe that the installation of such cameras has more to do with revenue enhancement than safety. The same type of question applies to India and yet a clear-cut answer has not been reached.

Companies which manufacture vehicle tracking systems are widespread in India, which constitutes the monitoring of our cars a vivid reality. Yet, there is a lack of statutory provisions in India for the privacy of our vehicle´s real-time movement and hence, we are being monitored without any safeguards. Major privacy concerns arise in regards to the monitoring of vehicles in India, as the following questions have not been adequately addressed: What type of data is collected in India through the monitoring of vehicles? Who can legally authorize access to such data? Who can have access to such data and under what conditions? Is data being shared between third parties and if so, under what conditions?How long is such data being retained for?

And more importantly: Why is it important to address the above questions? Does it even matter if the movement of our vehicles is being monitored? How would that affect us personally? Well, the monitoring of our cars implies a huge probability that it´s not our vehicles per se which are under the microscope, but us. And while the tracking of our movement might not end us up arrested, interrogated, tortured or imprisoned tomorrow...it might in the future. As long as we are being monitored, we are all suspects and we may potentially be treated as any other offender who is suspected to have committed a crime. The current statutory omission in India to adequately regulate the use of traffic enforcement cameras, RFID tags, black boxes and other technologies used to track and monitor the movement of our vehicles can potentially violate our due process rights and infringe upon our right to privacy and other human rights. Thus, the collection, access, use, analysis, sharing and retention of data acquired through the monitoring of vehicles in India should be strictly regulated to ensure that we are not exposed to our defenceless control.

Maneuvering our monitoring

Nowadays, surveillance appears to be the quick-fix solution for everything related to public security; but that does not need to be the case.

Instead of installing red light cameras monitoring our cars´ movements and bombarding us with fines, other ´simple´ measures could be enforced in India, such as increasing the duration of the yellow light between the green and the red, re-timing lights so drivers will encounter fewer red ones or increasing the visibility distance of the traffic lights so that it is more likely for a driver to stop. Such measures should be enforced by governments, especially since the monitoring of our vehicles is not adequately justified.

Strict laws regulating the use of all technologies monitoring vehicles in India, whether red light cameras, RFID tags or black boxes, should be enacted now. Such regulations should clearly specify the terms of monitoring vehicles, as well as the conditions under which data can be collected, accessed, shared, used, processed and stored. The enactment of regulations on the monitoring of vehicles in India could minimize the potential for citizens´ due process rights to be breached, as well as to ensure that their right to privacy and other human rights are legally protected. This would just be another step towards preventing ubiquitous surveillance and if governments are interested in protecting their citizens´ human rights as they claim they do, then there is no debate on the necessity of regulating the monitoring of our vehicles. The question though which remains is:

Should we be monitored at all?

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