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Government wants inside your car

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Government is trying to get inside our cars.

In each case, the reasons sound good: to save the environment, to replenish diminishing transportation budgets, to combat congestion, even to save our lives.

Now that tracking equipment exists that can transmit information about our travels from our cars back to a centralized location, governments everywhere suddenly have developed a burning need to solve the problems of the day by installing such equipment in our cars.

Officials in San Francisco want to unclog roads by charging drivers an extra fee for using the most congested sections of the city, like authorities do in London and Singapore, The New York Times reports. Like several other cities and states, the Oregon Department of Transportation wants to install satellite technology in cars to track drivers' mileage and charge them accordingly. The state needs to do this because people are buying fuel-efficient vehicles and driving less, so the state is collecting less gas tax, state officials say.

In North Carolina, state leaders are studying GPS technology that would allow the state to tax people per mile, with rates varying according to when and where they drive, The Charlotte Observer reported. The goal is to recoup diminishing gas tax money and "manage" congestion.

In Britain, where things have progressed a bit further than they have here, the Commission for Integrated Transport wants to install automatic speed-limiting devices in all cars to reduce auto accidents. It would cut auto crash injuries 29 percent, they say, and reduce carbon emissions. The technology comes with a manual override feature, in case you need to take off in a hurry. But if you did, the government would know.

The governments seeking these projects all have one thing in common. They've all promised that drivers' privacy won't be compromised, that government won't store or use records of our travel, that this tracking will be "anonymous."

Tell that to the Bay Area residents whose travels have already been used against them in criminal cases and divorce court, after attorneys subpoenaed personal driving records collected by the regional automated e-toll system, which relies on simple tags affixed to cars to charge drivers.

While the sudden interest in this technology by governments across the country may seem random, it isn't. It's the product of 18 years of careful planning and research by the federal government.

Back in 2004, I wrote about the U.S. Department of Transportation's plans to create a national vehicle tracking system called the Integrated Network of Transportation Information, or INTI. At the time, Congress had already spent over $4 billion developing the technology to track and collect information on automobile movements on a mass scale.

Back then, automakers hoped to start installing them in cars by 2010, and to equip 57 million vehicles by 2015. The plan was never for the federal government to do the installing, but for it to give the technology to the states and the auto companies, with the eventual hope of patching it all together into a national system.

"It's probably going to start in the large metropolitan areas where there's a much larger concentration and more demand for the services that are going to be made available," University of Buffalo professor Jean-Claude Thill, who specializes in transportation and geographic information, told me at the time. Thill is now at UNC-Charlotte.

It appears that the government is right on track because that is exactly what is happening.

Since 1991, the driving force behind the INTI has been the Washington, D.C.-based Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA). This powerful group of government and corporate interests has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying to bring the INTI to life and worked side by side with U.S. DOT and its agencies to create it. A look at its broad 500-organization membership base shows just how much clout is behind the push to create the information superhighway. Nearly all of the 50 state Departments of Transportation are members, including the N.C. DOT. So is every major auto manufacturer, foreign and domestic.

Despite claims repeated by governments looking to implement these auto tracking systems, privacy gets much lip service, but has never really been a part of the plan. According to the "ITS Vision Statement," the Federal Highway Administration published in 2003, by 2022, each private "travel customer" will have their own "user profile" on the system that includes regular travel destinations, their route preferences, and any pay-for-service subscriptions they use. Neil Schuster, then-president and CEO of ITSA, further clarified that goal in a 2004 interview with Creative Loafing. "In fact, when we talk about this, the U.S. government is talking about creating a national database, because where cars are has to go into a database," Schuster said.

Most INTI enthusiasts, like Schuster, insist that the benefits of the system are worth giving up some privacy. But the end result governments are aiming for in the short term is clear -- to control our lives by rewarding or punishing our travel choices, even including fees for behaviors they don't like.

How the INTI will one day be used if we go forward with it on a large scale is anyone's guess. But to suggest the government will protect our privacy is laughable.

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