Missouri grants contract for statewide cell phone-tracking program

| 12/6/2005

Beginning next week, cell phone-toting motorists in Missouri will have the government keeping an eye on them, whether they like it – or not.

On Friday, Dec. 2, the Missouri Department of Transportation approved a statewide contract with National Engineering Technology Corp., which will begin tracking and monitoring the signals sent from drivers’ cell phones to nearby towers to monitor vehicles’ positions and speeds.

Drivers will have no way to opt out of the tracking – except to turn off the power to their cell phones.

Alone, a single car provides very little information, but when combined with data from other cars, researchers will be able to determine traffic slowdowns remotely.

The information will also be available to the motorists themselves. Within six months, a Web site will be set up to allow drivers to check on traffic flow using the cell phone data, The Associated Press reported.

MoDOT officials told The AP that user information will remain anonymous, and that the data from the $3 million project will only be used to predict traffic patterns.

“There is absolutely no privacy threat whatsoever,” said MoDOT Director Pete Rahn.

However, since the system would use cell phone users’ signals – each of which can be traced back to the phone’s owner – privacy advocates worry about the potential use of the program for the tracking of private citizens.

“Even though it’s anonymous, it’s still ominous,” Daniel Solove, a privacy law professor at George Washington University, told The Kansas City Star. “It troubles me, because it does show this movement toward using a technology to track people.”

Missouri isn’t the only state to consider using cell phone-tracking technology. The Maryland State Highway Administration – with financial support from Delcan National Engineering Corp. and a number of federal grants – has been testing a $5.7 million traffic-monitoring system on more than 1,000 miles of roadway.

However, according to The AP, MoDOT’s plan will cover 5,500 miles of roadways across the state, making it the largest project of its kind to date.