In the next few years, monitoring traffic in Maryland won't be done with underground sensors or speed cameras - it will be done with motorists' cell phone information. But not everyone's happy about the state using personal data for public purposes.
The Maryland State Highway Administration - with financial support from Delcan National Engineering Corp. and a number of federal grants - has been testing a traffic-monitoring system on more than 1,000 miles of roadway.
The $5.7 million pilot program has been underway for about six months, and will continue for about another year and a half.
According to the Maryland Daily Record, the system uses a patented technology called Estimotion, which measures signals sent from a cell phone to nearby towers to monitor the vehicle's position and, therefore, speed. Alone, a single car provides very little information, but when combined with data from surrounding cars, researchers are able to determine traffic slowdowns and crashes remotely.
When a traffic problem is discovered, the system relays the information to roadside signs and traffic officials, who can alert motorists and reroute traffic to prevent congestion problems.
Maryland isn't the only state trying out the technology. The Missouri Department of Transportation is getting set to implement a similar $3 million plan to use drivers' cell phone signals to track and ease traffic.
According to The Associated Press, MoDOT is already in the negotiating process with private contractors to develop the technology, which will cover 5,500 miles of roadways across the state, making the largest project of its kind to date.
MoDOT officials told The AP that user information will remain anonymous, and that the data 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."