Mobile surveillance


WASHINGTON -- In and around New York City, a syndicate of 15 government transportation agencies will earn about $325 million this year from a highly popular computerized toll-collection system called E-ZPass.

The system sends out a radio signal that recognizes each subscriber by reading a tiny tag mounted on the driver's windshield. A computer then debits the toll from a prepaid account. E-ZPass users often zip through toll plazas as unequipped vehicles creep toward clogged cash lanes.

Without any fanfare, antennas have been installed along some highways that feed these toll plazas, creating an ability to track the speed and location of E-ZPass holders. Although no privacy safeguards are built into the system, bureaucrats claim they scramble the ID codes and quickly erase the gathered data.

But these transponders are quite capable of nailing speeders and spewing out fines in the mail -- assuming that, down the road, the courts go along for the ride.

The mobile computer technology being used today to catch car thieves also makes it possible to program vehicles to operate only on certain authorized days or within certain approved hours.

Big Brother ideas

Such Big Brother notions seem less far-fetched after reading a General Motors Corp. white paper, "Perspectives on the Future of Transportation."

GM honchos lay out one bleak scenario under which mounting environmental pressures cause consumption to be widely viewed as an extravagance.

GM's notion

In such a future mobilized society, the GM paper says, "the automotive industry sells transportation rather than vehicles. Industry ownership of vehicles ensures regular updating to more efficient power plants and recycling of used materials and fluids."

For the time being, GM is taking a different tack -- one premised on saving lives. The company's OnStar system automatically brings the police and an ambulance to an accident scene whenever an air bag deploys.

OnStar mates the network of Global Positioning System satellites with a voice-activated, hands-free cell phone. Pressing a button on the phone enables GM staffers to tell clients precisely where they are.

In theory, somebody could ask GM's on-call staff of "service advisers" whether you're in fact on a business outing or whether you're seeking another kind of service.

But GM swears it will tell only the cops where your car is.

Personal computers have been around for quite a while. It's just that they haven't been truly personal and mobile. For better or worse, all that is about to change.

Andrew J. Glass is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is

Pub Date: 6/03/98

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