COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Someday in the near future sophisticated computer-based systems will be able to tag and track our cars as we drive the nation's highways.
Proponents say Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) will improve traffic safety, reduce congestion and save energy, among other benefits.
But federal law is ill-equipped to deal with the privacy issues that arise from this new technology, according to Sheldon Halpern, professor of law at Ohio State University.
"Many people are frightened by what may be done with information collected about where and when they drive," Halpern said. "The problem is that ITS falls beyond the scope of privacy law in this country."
But there is a solution that doesn't require privacy law to be overhauled, Halpern said. Rather than modifying law to fit ITS, Halpern proposes that the design of the ITS technology itself could prevent the more serious problems from arising. The
technological solution would be to prevent data about individual drivers from being accumulated and stored.
Halpern is author of the book The Law of Defamation, Privacy, Publicity and Moral Right. He discussed privacy issues involved with ITS in a recent issue of the Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal.
ITS isn't just a distant vision. Congress has authorized more than $600 million in federal funds for ITS activities. In addition, a public-private consortium called ITS America has been created to define and advance a national ITS program.
Under ITS, satellite-based systems would track and collect information about cars traveling on roads and highways. Autos would have on-board displays that could warn of traffic jams and accidents, send out emergency signals when needed, or help pinpoint drivers who are lost. On-board computers could also automatically charge drivers when they use toll roads and bridges or even take control of a vehicle if an accident appears imminent.
Halpern said ITS raises a host of privacy questions regarding the collection and storage of information about drivers. "There's first the general fear of government watching us," Halpern said. But the other, more realistic possibility is that the information collected will be used by government or private businesses to build individual profiles.
"It's an informational privacy issue. The personal information collected by the system could be put to commercial or exploitative uses," Halpern explained. For example, companies could develop mailing lists of drivers who fit certain profiles and who may be likely to buy certain products.
The problem is that current privacy law in the United States hasn't been designed to deal with issues of informational privacy, according to Halpern. Instead, privacy law has traditionally involved protecting people from public exposure.
"Informational privacy is something different from other forms of privacy and we don't have all our legal tools in place to deal with it," he said.
Eventually, lawmakers will have to deal with how to tailor the law to issues of informational privacy. But Halpern said that problems involved with ITS can be solved without complex legal changes.
He said ITS technology can be designed so that it doesn't store information about individual cars and drivers.
"The purpose of ITS has been to promote safety and the flow of traffic. You can do all of that without collecting information about individual drivers," he argued. While it may be important, for example, to know how many cars are traveling a crowded urban freeway during rush hour, it's not important to know which specific cars are on that freeway.
In funding ITS, Congress has said that intelligent highway systems should be designed to take into account privacy concerns. Halpern suggests that legislation be more specific in ensuring ITS technology is built without the capability of storing personal information about drivers.
"We won't have to worry about the dissemination of information about drivers if we don't collect the information in the first place," he said.
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Contact: Sheldon Halpern, (614) 292-7480
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457