TrafficMaster sells clients' location info to UK.gov
Pay for your own spy in the cab
Noted UK news brand the Daily Mail served up a somewhat error-speckled tech scoop last night, with news that a government "'spy in the sky' system" is involved in a "secret 'Big Brother' operation... allowing officials to pinpoint the exact location of thousands of vehicles".
It emerged that the Mail scribes were talking about UK traffic-data company TrafficMaster selling its database to the government. The deal isn't terribly secret, actually - TrafficMaster is quite open about it.
Trafficmaster's SmartNav package uses kit fitted in users' cars and a call/data centre. The car is linked to TrafficMaster by GPRS (and a voice channel for the driver). Drivers can call in to TrafficMaster and ask for a route plan from the call centre; the call centre has real-time traffic data as well as ordinary mapping and locations.
Instructions are delivered by a dashboard speaker or optional screen. The car system has GPS satellite nav, and tells TrafficMaster where it goes in real time. This is one of the ways in which TrafficMaster knows about jams and congestion. But it's not a "spy in the sky", for God's sake - it's a spy in the cab. GPS satellites merely transmit a timing signal - they do not spy on people.
TrafficMaster sells the info in bulk to the Department for Transport. The Mail "has seen details of the £3m... small print makes clear that the information being collected is... potentially, sinister...
"This includes a unique number identifying the vehicle, two six-figure Ordnance Survey readings for the location, and the date and time when the information was captured. It also includes what kind of vehicle it is, the speed it is travelling and the direction.
"A snapshot of this information is collected at 15-minute intervals and then collated and provided in its raw form to the DfT ...
"The revelations will fuel concerns that Britain is turning into a surveillance society."
The Mail goes on to suggest that TrafficMaster "could provide the blueprint to monitor the location, speed and journey details of millions of drivers in years to come".
"Such a system might be used to manage a system of road pricing... It might also be used to identify speeding drivers.
"It could also be used by everyone from the police to the taxman to discover whether an individual is where they claim to have been at any point in time."
Well, maybe. In-car kit is indeed one of the ways that road pricing might be implemented, but it's expensive (SmartNav costs users £500 for the gear plus installation and monthly fees). It's also extremely easy to defeat. So is the Mail's fretting justified?
Let's say the dark Orwellian future has arrived, and as a British motorist you pay a nasty £500+ levy on a new car so that it can come with built-in cell-netted sat nav spy all complete. Then let's say you now want to make a journey that you'd prefer the authorities were unaware of. And then let's say you don't want to buy a cheap secondhand car with a few months left on its MoT - for probably £100 or less - and give false details on the change-of-ownership forms. For some reason, you want to go in your own car.
OK. Kit yourself out with a combo cellphone and GPS jammer - a quick trip to the States, or call to a friend there who'll forward stuff by post, and you can buy these legally. (You'll be able to buy them, one might submit, in UK street markets for cash within days of any GPS-based road pricing scheme going live.)
If you don't want to spend money or possess any illegal kit, find the antennae of the spy system and block them with good old tinfoil - always the friend of those wishing to escape government spies. Test your work with a short, innocuous journey; if you don't get billed for it by the road pricing authority, you can take it that you know how to cut off your car's spy system. (Or that the government is specifically watching you and being cunning about it, but if that's happened you're being followed by a surveillance team - a risk we all face already.)
Now make your secret trip, then turn off the jammers or take away the tinfoil, and go legit again. Don't worry about your system's downtime being noticed - car batteries go flat or get disconnected, vehicles get parked in metal sheds or underground. The authorities can't chase up every instance of a car dropping off their plot.
And you've done it - fooled the system. GPS (or, maybe one day, Galileo) based tracking is easy to beat on its own. Now you just need to worry about the ANPR numberplate-reading software in the road cameras, already rolled out in the London congestion zone - but again, that's not a big deal for occasional journeys.
Find another car the same make as yours and copy its plates (a thermal printer which can churn out handy waterproof stickers to go over your easy-made blank plate is far from expensive. If you can sort out a delivery address and credit card which don't point to you, just order online).
The guy whose plates you used will get an erroneous road-pricing bill, but even if the authorities can tie his subsequent complaint to your illicit trip, they'll struggle to prove that you used illegal plates - or even that you went anywhere - unless you give them other evidence.
Nationwide realtime ANPR joined up with in-car GPS? Now the government snoopers are in with a fighting chance. It'll be really difficult and troublesome to avoid paying the road pricing, but you can still avoid being tracked.
Buy that cheap secondhand motor for cash and enter false registration details. Use the same ones when you insure it, and don't forget to pay for the insurance by cash or postal order*. If you don't pay the road pricing on the ghost car, after a while you'll have to abandon it and start again, or you'll get pulled over by the plods. Also, don't drive to and from your ghost car in your legit car: walk or ride a bike or something. (Leave your normal-life mobile behind, too.)
Our last best hope is that - in UK government IT, anyway - cockup always trumps conspiracy. There's not a cat's hope of the UK government being able to make all this stuff work together. In particular, they'd have to effectively nationalise the motor insurance industry. Even if it did work, the jails and courts are already overloaded; they don't have the capacity to deal with fresh criminals by the million. The whole plan doesn't really seem like a vote-winner.
As for users of SmartNav today, they can relax a little; but only a little. The bulk data sold to the DfT isn't used to detect crime. You can break the speed limit, and your SmartNav gear will tell the DfT, but for now all they'll do is maybe put a speed camera in locations where a lot of people speed. They won't come after you personally.
"We have no interest in knowing where people are travelling to and from," a spokesman told the Mail.
That said, if a copper or a spook is investigating you and he notices that your car has SmartNav, he can - probably without a warrant from a judge or a politician - get full details of your movements from the DfT, who get them automatically from TrafficMaster. If the Mail has its details right, the location slugs are identifiable by unique vehicle number, so all the watchers need is one known time and location to kick off with. The plod or spy could possibly track you anyway in a major case by having your car bugged or followed, but it might be a bit galling to pay his bills for him and remove his oversight procedures.
TrafficMaster would appear to be a service only for the pure. Which is strange, as at least one of its services seems tailor-made for the caddish, philandering road warrior. You can use the voice channel, apart from asking for a route plan, to order certain things: Flowers, champagne and hotel rooms. Not anything else - just those three specific things.
Think twice, though; TrafficMaster might sell its database to your spouse. Mail coverage here. ®
*I'm assuming here that with the introduction of vehicle tracking databases automatically cross-referenced to insurance ones, the government has chosen to build many more prisons and herded the vast numbers of people who today drive uninsured - or who falsify their insurance details to get lower premiums - into jail. If this hasn't happened, simply don't bother insuring your ghost car.