Oct. 14, 2011 at 6:55 AM ET
Imagine that you couldn't drive on major highways without agreeing to put a camera in your car -- one that could film either the occupants or the vehicle’s surroundings and transmit the images back to a central office for inspection.
You don't have to read George Orwell to conjure up such an ominous surveillance state. You just have to skim through filings at the U.S. Patent Office.
It's hard to imagine Americans would tolerate such a direct, Big-Brotherish intrusion. But they might not notice if the all-seeing cameras were tucked inside another kind of government tracking technology that millions of Americans have already invited into their cars.
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. The gadget could also be instructed to take pictures when the acceleration of a car "exceeds a threshold," or when accidents occur, so it could be used like an airplane cockpit flight recorder.
It's important to note that a patent filing is a far cry from the invention and manufacturing of a new product. Many patent filings are nothing more than a defensive measure taken to protect the farthest reaches of intellectual property. Officials at Kapsch declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a statement said that citizens shouldn't read too much into the filing.
“This patent filing is part of the standard intellectual property protection process followed by every company that invests in research and development," said Erwin Toplak, chief operating officer of Kapsch, in an e-mail. "Kapsch, for example, files approximately 20 patent applications a year. This process protects our unique ideas; it does not signify that a commercial product is in development or even contemplated .”
And P.J. Wilkins, executive director of the E-Z Pass Group consortium that manages the massive toll collection cooperative, said he hadn't even heard of camera technology when told about the patent by msnbc.com.
"It's not an upgrade we are working on here," said. "We just signed a long-term contract with them and this wasn't a requirement."
Enforcement of HOV and HOT lanes is a labor-intensive and expensive issue for many state agencies, he said, and he understood why a company like Kapsch would try to invent a technology to deal with the problem, But he said he couldn't imagine it being used in the E-Z Pass system.
"Before anyone goes down that road there's a whole host of questions that would have to be answered,” he said. “What's the impact on privacy? What's the impact on the data stream? I just don't think it's something that would gain a lot of traction."
Kapsch sells its technology in 41 countries around the globe, and 64 million cars worldwide have been outfitted with its transponders, according to the firm's website. Occupant cameras could be attractive, and more acceptable, outside the U.S.
And while it's possible cameras-in-cars technology would be a non-starter in America, that doesn't mean Americans shouldn't be worried, said Lee Tien, a privacy expert with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"I think (drivers) should be pretty concerned," he said. "You want to make sure any use of that technology is very carefully regulated. People should let the E-Z Pass folks know now what they think about any possible plans to introduce cameras in their cars, now, while it's being developed, rather than before it's already a fait accompli, and some agency says it's already spent millions on it and can't turn back now."
Tien said there's nothing inherently bad about using new technology to enforce tolls, but he cautioned against what is sometimes called "surveillance spillover." Technology designed for one function is inevitably used by law enforcement officials and other government agencies in unintended ways.
"You could imagine that they could limit the capacity of devices -- say the images would be destroyed after a very short period of time -- so it would not be as powerful a surveillance device. But that's not the general dynamic," he said. "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."
The dynamic is playing out right now in a European scandal surrounding use of a secret government program used by German law enforcement officials to monitor citizens' Internet behavior through the use of Trojan horse software called R2D2. German courts had permitted use of the software only when officials were fulfilling a legal wiretap order, and only to listen in on Skype conversations. But the R2D2 Trojan has allegedly been used by German authorities to send thousands of screen shots detailing suspects' Internet explorations, to keylog their typing, and in a host of other potentially illegal evidence-gathering methods.
The solution, says Tien, is to design privacy right into the gadget in the first place, to minimize the inevitable temptations for law enforcement and security officials.
"It doesn't bother me that (Kapsch) filed this patent. Surveillance technology is constantly being developed. There is money in surveillance," he said. "The question is less about lamenting the invention of these things and more about questioning our demand for surveillance, and thinking about the kind of society we are building and encouraging when we legitimize the continual, gradual architecting of the social world into a surveillance society."
News of the camera patents comes as electronic toll collection continues to expand around the U.S. -- and while options for using the systems anonymously have finally become commonplace. After years of complaints from skeptics that E-Z Pass toll paying created an undesirable public record that could be used to track individuals, systems in Texas and Washington state now allow users to register for the devices without disclosing their identities. And a new "E-Z Pass On the Go" gadget is being sold in the Eastern U.S. that functions much like a disposable prepaid phone card, allowing anonymous use of the E-Z Pass tolls.
E-Z Pass has had to beat back a lot of conspiracy theories through the years, Wilkins noted -- such as the idea that the gadgets would be used to catch speeders and issue tickets. E-Z Pass users now register very few complaints, he said, and are overwhelmingly happy with a system that helps them avoid delays at long toll booth lines.
"The whole tracking thing is a bogus argument," said Wilkins. "If you have a cell phone you are being tracked anyway. Law enforcement can get to cell phone records just as easily (as E-Z Pass records). And the phone company keeps that data a very long time."