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Researchers, spooks favour satnav-based road pricing

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A group of transport experts and researchers has come out in favour of road-pricing using satellite tracking.

The transport panel run by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET, representing "the profession of electrical, electronic, manufacturing and systems engineering and related sciences") briefed reporters on Tuesday.

"I do not see many other options [than road pricing] available to us to manage our transport system," said Phil Blythe of Newcastle University.

Bill Gillan from the Transport Research Laboratory said he believed that eventually satellite tracking would supersede other technologies such as fixed cameras and electronic tags, according to Reuters.

The wire service interpreted this to mean that "spies in the sky may track motorists in Britain within a decade if the government goes ahead with controversial plans to introduce road user charging schemes...global positioning system satellites [would] read on-board transponders".

The IET could be said to have suffered a bit of a setback here in its mandate to "assist Government to make the public aware of technological issues". GPS satellites, as Reg readers will be well aware, are purely transmitters. They don't interrogate transponders or track things on the ground.

But a receiver on the ground can use GPS signals to work out where it is; thus a tracking unit installed in a car can let the government know where that car goes, using some form of wireless comms. We're talking about a spy in the cab here, not a spy in the sky.

But it's definitely a spy, no doubt about that. Knowing where every vehicle goes will, as the transport experts point out, allow the authorities to charge people more for driving in congested areas or at busy times, potentially allowing the nation to get the best out of its busy roads. Of course, every citizen is bound to be in favour of that (well actually, maybe not, but pass on).

There is, however, something of a privacy issue here. But the technology panelists brushed such concerns aside.

"Panel member and transport consultant Jack Opiola said the thorny issue of personal data privacy could easily be dealt with by appropriate laws," according to Reuters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the IET transport panel counts two police officers among its membership. Doubtless only wrongdoers - criminals, terrorists and so on - would have anything to fear (actually, the 7/7 bombers used mass transit and hire cars most of the time. And ordinary villains nearly always prefer stolen vehicles for use in serious blags).

Still, on the other hand, anyone who's worried about their car being tracked by the government should certainly not be willing to carry a mobile phone. Not one with a monthly-plan SIM, anyway, or even a PAYG which has ever been topped-up using one's own plastic. And there are lots of other issues around phones. Take the battery out most of the time, we hear, because surveillance boys who know what they're doing can turn your phone on remotely; and change phones now and then just to be sure. In fact, just try not to get the spooks cheesed off with you, that's the El Reg advice (though, again, it doesn't seem to have stopped the 7/7 lads).

Basically, then, there's a school of thought which says there's no need to worry about having your car tracked because they're already able to track you using your mobile, or your credit card, or your suspiciously large cash purchases because you don't use your card, or your face appearing on CCTV. So maybe we should all just give up, and learn to love Big Brother.

Or, alternatively - on the car tracking issue - maybe we should get ourselves a GPS spoofing rig, maybe with a bit of intelligently designed shielding. Then we could merrily drive up and down a really expensive bit of motorway in the middle of rush hour, and the government spy-in-the-cab - whose casing we hadn't so much as touched, whose crypto we'd never needed to crack - would be telling its masters we hadn't gone anywhere. And we wouldn't have to pay a penny.

Could be that satnav road-pricing won't be that simple after all. Of course, that probably means more cameras or whatever.. sigh. Whatever happened to the days where, if the government wanted to spy on you, they'd send along someone sexy in a revealing top? ®

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