Police using E-ZPass data in Luna slaying case

| 12/15/2003

When Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Luna's sedan cruised through a toll booth the night he was killed, his E-ZPass card automatically billed him, leaving an electronic record of his travels for police, The Associated Press reported.

Millions of commercial truck drivers and others use electronic toll systems to pay for tolls without digging out cash – and investigators are increasingly using the electronic record they create as a crime fighting tool.

Should truckers be concerned about how these systems are used?

"Absolutely, and so should all Americans" said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “Any information that can be used can also be abused.  We see a lot of that."

The big picture for truckers is that these systems can be used to make every road a toll road and every related device that transmits or receives an electronic signal a tool to provide surveillance for all kinds of purposes.

Regardless of what assurances of privacy and confidentiality that may come up front, these promises won't be kept in the long run, Spencer said.

Whether it's national security or law enforcement or the desire to raise revenue, government and others always find ways to tap into available information for their own purposes, he added.

More on E-ZPass

The E-ZPass system, which operates from Massachusetts to West Virginia and is expanding to Maine and New Hampshire, operates using the distinct radio signal emitted by each card. Toll receivers detect the signal and bill the corresponding account. Similar regional systems are in use around the country.

The New York Thruway System has received 128 subpoenas from investigators since 1998, and has turned over records in response to 61 of them, said Terry O'Brien, a spokesman for the thruway system, as reported by The AP.

The thruway system has issued electronic cards for use in 5.1 million vehicles, so the number of records subpoenaed is a small percentage. But experts predict the records will increasingly find their way into both criminal and civil cases.

According to a newspaper report, New York City officials last month transferred 30 detectives out of the narcotics bureau for allegedly claiming false overtime. They were discovered passing through E-ZPass lanes miles from where they were supposed to be working.

In Illinois, a man reviewed his wife's electronic toll records during a custody dispute, and divorce attorneys say they see potential for such records in the future.

In the Luna case, electronic toll records show the 38-year-old took a roundabout route from Maryland to the spot in Lancaster County, PA, where his body was found last week, investigators said. Authorities fanned out across the region, interviewing gas station attendants and hotel clerks.

An FBI spokesman in Baltimore would not comment on the bureau's use of E-ZPass records in general, citing the ongoing investigation. Investigators subpoenaed toll records from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, the commission said.

While that request was specific, investigators in Massachusetts have occasionally asked highway authorities for general data. For instance: Did any blue Ford pickup trucks pass through Exit 35 Friday night?

Doug Hanchett, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, said officials have fought to quash subpoenas it feels are inappropriate. Even with a slight increase this year, however, he said the agency only received about six subpoenas in 2002.

Meanwhile, New York businessman Solomon Friedman told The AP he’s wary of the technology's potential for misuse. Anyone with technical savvy, he said, could track radio signals from the cards. He designed a pouch a driver can store the card in, blocking the signal when not in the toll lane.

“Why have data out there about yourself when there's no reason for it?” he said.