Big Brother has it ‘E-Z’: City now tracking cars through local streets thanks to E-ZPass

BIG BROTHER?: The city has installed E-ZPass readers such as this one throughout Brooklyn, tracking cars — and possibly their drivers — as the pass beneath.
The Brooklyn Paper
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The traffic lights are listening, and officials are being mum about it.

The city has quietly installed electronic devices at busy intersections that use E-ZPass technology to collect data on cars — and possibly their drivers — as they pass below, The Brooklyn Paper has learned.

The innocuous looking white boxes have been popping up on the same poles that hold traffic lights for the last few months, and are, according to the city, checking the speed and volume of traffic as it passes through thanks to the handy E-ZPass device that sticks on many Brooklynites’ windshields that allows them to breeze through tolls at area bridges and on highways.

Brooklyn Paper reporters noticed at least three different E-ZPass readers next to lights Downtown, one at the intersection of Boerum Place and Atlantic Avenue, another is at Tillary Street and the Flatbush Avenue extension, and a third on Atlantic Avenue near the Barclays Center.

The boxes aren’t limited to Brooklyn, having been installed all over the city by the Department of Transportation.

Representatives of the agency refused multiple requests by this paper to provide a list of where the tracking devices are, and no record of them appears on the agency’s website, which does list the 320 cameras it has installed on streets throughout the city to monitor traffic.

Multiple spokespeople for the Department of Transportation told us that the new devices were use to collect “aggregate data,” and that the devices weren’t being used to charge drivers with traffic violations such as speeding or running red lights.

The department runs the program independent of the E-ZPass Center that is cooperatively run by MTA Bridges and Tunnels, the Port Authority, and the New York State Thruway Authority. The agency wouldn’t say if information it collected came solely to it, or if it was shared with other agencies or any private third parties.

This newspaper requested the agency provide us with a list of locations where the devices have been installed in Brooklyn, but it failed to do so by press time.

Civil liberties advocates say they are concerned about what, exactly, the city is listening for.

“When they say that it is done for aggregate purposes, that sounds suspiciously vague,” said lawyer Norman Siegel, the former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Siegel said that the E-ZPass records could wind up being used in litigation where cars and their drivers are tracked from one place to another through information gathered by the new devices. In fact, EZ-Pass technology has already been used for such a purpose, but that information was gathered while cars is pass through a toll — a moment when drivers know they’re being watched.

In the absence of more information about how the technology is being used, Siegel said, it’s difficult to tell whether or not this is an invasion of privacy.

“[Tracking technology] is a growing area for civil liberties concerns at this point,” he said.

Reach reporter Jaime Lutz at or by calling (718) 260-8310. Follow her on Twitter @jaime_lutz.
Updated 10:10 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Chicken Underwear from Park Slope says:
This is a good thing. Let the DoT keep traffic moving.
May 8, 2013, 6:15 am
boof from brooklyn says:
There is no expectation of privacy while operating dangerous machinery such as an automobile. That's why they have license plates.
May 8, 2013, 6:19 am
Bob from Brooklyn says:
Boof is echoing a too frequent mantra about there being "no expectation of privacy" in virtually any arena. IF the devices are used to collect information for use BEYOND motor vehicle-related purposes, there might STILL be an "expectation of privacy" — or at least a right to our personal space (see: Fourth Amendment).

If data is being used for valid motor vehicle-related purposes, why won't DOT come clean and tell us about it? The fact that DOT will NOT tell the Paper what the data is for strongly suggests it's brewing something short of a kosher stew.
May 8, 2013, 6:31 am
Seth from Prospect Lefferts Gardens says:
You don't need E-ZPass data to check the speed and volume of traffic at an intersection.

I assume that's why DOT is being less than forthcoming about what they're doing...
May 8, 2013, 6:43 am
Johnny Hammersticks from Brooklyn says:
It's how they track traffic pace. It hits your EZ Pass. Then another one down the road hits your EZPass. It can tell how long it took you to get there. That is how the traffic apps on your smartphones work. These boxes are all over the highway. They're actually very helpful to civilians.

Are they using these things to track anything else? I don't know. But I know that they make planning my commute better.
May 8, 2013, 7:44 am
bkparent from brooklyn says:
Tip. When you are not using your EZ pass, take it off the windshield and keep in the glove compartment in the little silver "read prevention" pouch that it comes it (if you still have it). Can't be read that way. When you need to use it you get it out and put it on the windshield.
May 8, 2013, 7:48 am
Em from Red Hook says:
Tip. Put on your tin foil hat so the sensors can't read your brainwaves.
May 8, 2013, 8:36 am
judahspechal from bedstuy says:
shocking how we are so glib about freedom. Yet we are constantly reminded about heroes fighting to protect our freedom
May 8, 2013, 8:58 am
ty from pps says:
It's shocking how ridiculous your definition of freedom is. The DOT using EZ-Pass transponders to monitor the flow of traffic (with the individual vehicle as the unit of analysis) is so far from tyranny or even a minor infringement on our liberty, it's absurd.
May 8, 2013, 9:30 am
Charles from Bklyn says:
One serious issue is the fact that the DOT will not be able to read the EZ Pass when a motorist puts the pass back in the bag. Therefore, they are hoping the motorist leaves the pass on the windshield, which is both a subversive method and frankly arbitrary. Trusting the DOT is not warranted by their past behavior and actions of taking actions for the benefit of a few at the expense of the community. The DOT should not be given authority to do this type of data collection. If they want traffic data, they can count vehicles.
May 8, 2013, 9:54 am
walker from boerum hill says:
I have no problem with this, although frankly I'd prefer red-light cameras at intersections. I'm so tired of drivers in this city being catered to over peds and bikers. Let's make driving expensive and bad drive prohibitively so.
May 8, 2013, 10 am
ty from pps says:
"Therefore, they are hoping the motorist leaves the pass on the windshield, which is both a subversive method and frankly arbitrary."


What is subversive? Do you know that that means? And what is arbitrary?

The DOT does not need a sample of *every* car. They also obviously want more than a count. As Johnny Hammersticks pointed out, they can monitor the MOVEMENT of individual cars. You can't learn how well traffic is moving by counting. You learn these things by seeing how fast Car A progressed from Point X to Point Y.

Do you know how fast someone runs a marathon (or even how fast the average is) by counting how many people start, how many people are in the middle and how many people are at the end? No. You follow each individual.
May 8, 2013, 10:08 am
judahspechal from bedstuy says:
ty from pps, I guess the phrase "slippery slope" is a finement of my imagination? NYC is probably not a police state.
May 8, 2013, 10:53 am
judahspechal from bedstuy says:
ty from pps, I guess the phrase "slippery slope" is a finement of my imagination? NYC is probably not a police state.
May 8, 2013, 10:53 am
judahspechal from bedstuy says:
meant, figment, not finement
May 8, 2013, 10:54 am
ty from pps says:
Oh lordy... If you're a hammer, all you see are nails.
May 8, 2013, 11:06 am
Pat from Ft. Greene says:
Actually the City might be in violation of the law by expanding the use of EZ Pass beyond what is described in the usage contract without proper notification of all parties. A class action suit to cease and desist or provide proper explanation and opt out would be in order.
May 8, 2013, 11:17 am
Bob from Brooklyn says:
ty... why do you suppose the dot won't explain exactly what they are doing?
May 8, 2013, 11:18 am
ty from pps says:
Bob -- You are really going to trust the stellar reporting of the Brooklyn Paper and decide that the DOT is being secretive and underhanded?

It is VERY clear from the article that the "reporter" is depending on speculation and hearsay to produce this article. He didn't ask the DOT the right questions. Got vague answers. Then shared these vague answers with some retired civil liberties folks with too much time on their hands and got a nice bit of conspiracy theory added in.

It's clear the reporters at the Brooklyn Paper (like the NY Post) pride themselves on ignorance and do nothing to educate themselves on a topic before gathering information... the result is a half-assed job or random quotes and insinuation without any facts or substance.

So, to answer your question.. Why won't the DOT explain? Who says they won't? Someone has to ask intelligent questions first... and not start with "Why are you spying on us?" "What are the locations of your spy machines?"

How about, "What data are you able to get using this method that is not possible with more 'traditional' methods?" "What is the benefit to the public?"

In short, when a reporter for the Brooklyn Paper writes, "X would not say if..." I immediate assume this means, "I forgot to ask a follow-up question, but I'm going to have to write something so my editor thinks I know what I'm doing..."
May 8, 2013, 11:42 am
SwampYankee from runined Brooklyn says:
If you read your EZ pass agreement it pretty much says having an EZ-PAss is a privilege and they can do what ever they want with the data. EX-Pass data is used every day to track traffic usage. Te vast majority of the readers have nothing to do with toll collection. EZ-Pass records are commonly used in divorce cases when one party claims they were somewhere they were not. None of this matters, you cell phone can be and is, used to track you location all the time. A quick subpoena is sometimes used to get the data, but it is rarely needed. All the major providers will happily turn our data over to law enforcement without if they simply ask. Happens every day. Don't like it? Patriot Act says tough luck. YOu mail can be read, your cell phone records accessed EZ-pass usage given away. The modern surveillance state has abilities and powers that would make Big Brother blush
May 8, 2013, 12:05 pm
ty from pps says:
Since EZ-Pass is basically free and actually gives you discounted tolls -- I always wonder who all of the hundreds of people are waiting in the 'cash' lanes as I drive by. I'm starting to think they are all conspiracy theory nutters.
May 8, 2013, 1:11 pm
Bob from Brooklyn says:
Without question, I would trust a Brooklyn Paper reporter before I'd trust a DOT flack.
May 8, 2013, 1:38 pm
ty from pps says:
And there we have it...
May 8, 2013, 1:50 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
I will get an E-ZPass when cyclists are required to get one too. Till then they are all scofflaws.

And everyone knows that the E-ZPass are there to control the Black Helicopters.

Take the Willis Ave Bridge.
May 8, 2013, 2:57 pm
Har from De Har Har says:
That has to be the worst Tal impersonation yet! Almost funny!
May 8, 2013, 4:10 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Ty, E-Z Pass is not free. It is paid just like using a credit card. I know this because my family gets the bill every month. As a matter of fact, my mother had a plan that required her to use the TZB almost frequently since she was going through it on the way to work. BTW, a credit card is required to pay for the balance of it or they cannot be used. Still, I feel that tolls should be removed since the crossings and highways are on are already paid for with our taxes making it feel like double tipping. If the tolls must remain, they should only be used for their intended purpose and that is to cover for what they are on and not be used for anything else, especially for keeping fares low. As for what they are using this for on the streets, really does show an act of Big Brother here.
May 8, 2013, 5 pm
ty from pps says:
Tal -- The E-ZPass service IS free.... God, you are just stupid. Everything you say is stupid. Tal, please tell me what fees your mom pays other than the tolls when she uses E-ZPass? Hmmm... waiting. It is FREE. In fact, when you use E-ZPass most tolls are discounted... So, it's CHEAPER than cash.
May 8, 2013, 5:41 pm
jay from nyc says:
Nevermind for a minute the fact that if you chose to pay cash to drive on a public road rather than use Ez-pass you are penalized and discriminated against for using cash which is TOTAL b.s..
Having said that the REAL issue here is what do they do with the data?
For instance how would you feel if they use the data to track where you go in your car and then the city sells that info to telemarketers who then call you or spam text you with their products? Will that make you happy?
What if that data is accessible by employers? Or insurance providers, or health insurance operators? Or what about say even stalkers or pedophiles?
Facebook has problems with these exact same issues, and so does every other data aggregation around, including social security bureau, so its not at all far fetched to think that it could happen with this as well.
I see NO way this is going to make commutes better, DOT already knows the pace at which people move at and have cameras all over, there is no need for Ez-pass technology for this purpose, as its already in place and has been for decades. I don't know what the purpose is, but I would like to know more about it and how that data will be protected.
May 8, 2013, 7:05 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Ty, you have to have an account for E-Z Pass. That is the part that is not free. It's a violation to go through an E-Z Pass lane either without a tag for that or having an insufficient balance. The discount isn't that much different from paying the toll in cash, just a little less. Unlike the Unlimited Ride Metrocard, E-Z Pass is not subsidized, so it is affected by the rates when hiked. Just like a credit card, you pay for the tolls you use hence paying later, which happens to be at the end of the month. As for the data that is being collected, I am starting to have suspicions about it as well. I never did see what is the point of DOT actually doing this? Also, this does remind me of one of George Orwell's novels hearing about these cameras being placed all over to record this.
May 8, 2013, 8:24 pm
Other Michael from Park Slope says:

Do you even have an E-Z PASS. The are basically free. I think there is a $1 monthly service charge but you save a lot more than that when you use it just once. And if you commute regularly on roads that have tolls the E-Z PASS discount is actually significant, not "that much different from paying the toll in cash"

Go away Tal, you don't know what you are talking about.
May 8, 2013, 8:55 pm
ty from pps says:
Tal -- You are an idiot.

How much does an E-ZPass account cost? $0 (Tal, that is ZERO dollars.)

How much is the toll on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge? $15 cash, $10.66 with E-ZPass (Just a little less?!)

What about the other big bridges as the Midtown Tunnel? $7.50 cash, $5.33 with E-ZPass (Just a little less?!)

Hudson River tunnels and the GW Bridge? $13 cash, $8.25/$10.25 with E-ZPass (Just a little less?!)

And Tal, you don't have a clue about the most basic traffic engineering concepts... Why would anyone expect you to understand what the DOT might be doing with these data? (Remember your dumb analogy about the slit of water?)
May 8, 2013, 8:57 pm
Charles from Bklyn says:
ty from pps,

Sorry you didn't understand my post. I know the principles I laid out were difficult to understand.

subversive - to undermine the principles of; corrupt.

arbitrary - capricious; unreasonable; unsupported

The government is not allowed under the law to be subversive or arbitrary. They need a reason to do something (which they have not disclosed), and they need to act on this reason is a reasonable way (which they are not doing). Collecting data on traffic by reading the ezpass on drivers (that have not been told this is occurring) who inadvertently or mistakenly leave their expass on their dashboard would be considered an arbitrary government action. Further, the subversive nature of exploiting the expass system outside the road tolls, to which they were intended to track drivers and collect the toll, would also not be tolerated. You will understand this issue more when a court challenge stops the DOT from gathering data in this fashion.

Do you really want your government doing whatever they want without a reasonable basis? Don't get angry! Just think about it for a minute.
May 9, 2013, 11:53 am
ty from pps says:
Charles --
I think your definition of "reasonable basis" is extremely narrow and, well, wrong. I'm not the DOT, so it's not my job to justify the use of E-ZPass transponders as a source of data.... BUT, it is EXTREMELY reasonable for the Government to use the data from another Government agency to improve the services and experience of the public the Government serves.

They need a reason to be doing something? OK. They are collecting data about traffic in an extremely efficient and accurate way that saves gobs of money. Would you prefer the DOT divert money intended for road repairs to employ people with clipboards to sit on the side of the road? Or would you rather let a couple of computer collect and compile the data automatically?

Also -- those tag readers have been at various locations in the city for about 3 years now.
May 9, 2013, 12:30 pm
Other Michael from Park Slope says:
Yea, I think this is a good thing for the government to do.
May 9, 2013, 1:38 pm
Other Michael from Park Slope says:
Charles, there are not black helicopters here.

It is not subversive or arbitrary. It is part of a plan to help traffic move better.
May 9, 2013, 1:47 pm
Eyeroll from Bklyn says:
Wrong, Charles, the standard is "arbitrary and capricious" ... and please stop making up gobbledylaw.
May 9, 2013, 1:49 pm
Eyeroll from Bklyn says:
Wrong, Charles, the standard is "arbitrary and capricious" ... and please stop making up gobbledylaw.
May 9, 2013, 1:49 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
First off, cut the personal attacks, and calling somebody dumb just for disagreeing is very cowardly and childish, which makes me want to question some of your ages. It's interesting how some say that this will save money, but it costs money to place those cameras in the first place. In reality, I don't see much of a difference in saying that this will cost less when it's probably just about the same. If this is really about moving traffic better, then how about moving what makes them slow such as those sporadically used bike lanes, but that won't happen because JSK is for them, so she won't get rid of something that she was pushing for. On a side note, nice alter ego Other Michael.....................NOT!
May 9, 2013, 3:52 pm
ty from pps says:
Tal, sweety, we call you dumb because you are... not because you have a difference of opinion, but because you "opinion" is based on ignorance and stupidity.

Tal, how much does an E-ZPass account cost?
May 9, 2013, 4:52 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Ty, your question to that will be answered here.
May 9, 2013, 5:23 pm
ty from pps says:
So, Tal, an E-ZPass account is free. And Tal, can you tell me again how much more I have to pay for tolls if I pay with cash?

Why should anyone take you seriously, Tal, when you can't even get a REALLY simple fact right?
May 9, 2013, 5:39 pm
Other Michael from Park Slope says:

Are you trying to make the point that tolls are not free with the E-ZPass?
May 10, 2013, 5:53 am
Charles from Bklyn says:
Eyeroll and ty from pps,

I apologize again for the difficult nature of my posting. These concepts are not easy to understand, and of course, anger and disrespectful behavior toward others you disagree with tends to cloud judgment and reasoning. Lets try again, shall we?

First, this issue does not rise to the level of concern of overt government suppression or use of "black helicopters." To raise this concern would be foolish, as I assume you would agree.

However, we are talking about whether or not citizens are willing to allow the government to make decisions outside the standard of reasonable action. Although you are having a difficult time understanding this issue, the court's would considered scanning motorist's ezpass (without permission, I might add), on city streets, in the hope that they have inadvertently left the pass on after exiting a highway, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious. (I initially did not want to put these words together to avoid too much legalese, but you obviously can handle both words together).

Further, in this country, we do not allow the government to just do whatever they want to do, even if it seems OK to a lay person unfamiliar with the history or laws of this country. Government needs a good reason to do something, and they must do it in a reasonable fashion that is deemed Constitutional and within the law.

I know you don't understand what I am talking about, but that's ok! In this instance, ignorance of the law, legal concepts and history is no shame. You should be proud of yourselves for at least trying to understand and participating in this discussion.

May 10, 2013, 9:57 am
Other Michael from Park Slope says:

People who disagree with you are not stupid, we just disagree with you. That's ok,

We want the government to make traffic move better.
May 10, 2013, 1:16 pm
ty from pps says:
Wow, Charles! You are both a condescending douchebag and wrong! Awesome combination. Did you even read my response before you decided to repeat the same exact thing using slightly different words?

Standard of reasonable action? Fulfilled.
Arbitrary? Nope.
Capricious? Absolutely not.

So, there you go.
May 10, 2013, 5:27 pm
jay from nyc says:
ok so at the risk of saying a curse on both your houses, since ty and charles want to pretend they are lawyers, please you two, cite the relevant case law which lists the factors to determine if a city agency is acting in an arbitrary and capricious fashion and then apply those factors to this situation.
Also please explain how a "reasonable standard" applies and cite relevant case law. I think what you actually meant to say was that the governments actions are reasonably tailored to the goal or standard, which usually only applies in civil rights strict scrutiny types of situations, and I am curious as why you both seem to think that the strict scrutiny standard should be applied in the situation at hand.
if on the other hand you meant reasonable man type standard, which would be for torts, please explain how a tort situation is present in this instance, because I simply don't see that as being the case here. Look forward to both of your responses, Thanks.
May 10, 2013, 8:01 pm
ty from pps says:
Jay -
Charles is the only one "playing lawyer" here. I'm only speaking from the perspective of a rational human being and customary definitions of the words Charles is tossing around.

Is this an issue of tort law? I doubt it... not one single driver is suffering any damage -- only the potential for improved driving conditions (which is both an private benefit and a social benefit, in terms of commerce and health & safety). Charles does, however, seem to be playing at some sort of civil rights infraction... which is equally as ridiculous. Perhaps a Fourth Amendment violation? Or even an infringement of Article IV?

Somehow, to Charles, studying traffic with the aid of technology is qualitatively different than the deployment of an army of DOT employees monitoring with clipboards... perhaps monitoring traffic, period, constitutes government overreach and is "subversive" and "arbitrary" and "capricious" and whatever other bogeyman he's invented in his head.
May 10, 2013, 8:40 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
The point is that this should get the peoples' approval before being done. Doing such is sort of an invasion of privacy here. If I don't want the government to use my information for anything, then I just don't let them. This is why I don't give that much information, and that is because it could fall into a third party giving me things I didn't even ask for, and I will be forced to pay for it. BTW, it's the 9th amendment of the US Constitution that calls for the privacy, while the 4th amendment calls against the use of unreasonable searches and seizures, so please get them right.
May 12, 2013, 10:50 am
ty from pps says:
You're very smart, Tal. How much does an E-ZPass account cost?
May 12, 2013, 12:27 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Ty, it's like a credit card limit where it might be easy to set up, but you will have to pay off the tolls you have used it for later on.
May 12, 2013, 8:29 pm
Other Michael from Park Slope says:
Do you even have an E-ZPass?
May 12, 2013, 8:42 pm
ty from pps says:
So, Tal... the E-ZPass account doesn't cost anything. It's free. And, as I've said several times now, it actually provides a discount compared to cash.

You pay tolls with cash or E-ZPass... The *tolls* cost money. The form of payment does not.

You, sir, are an idiot.
May 13, 2013, 9:11 am
ty from pps says:
Other Michael - His mom does.
May 13, 2013, 9:11 am
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Despite having an E-Z Pass myself, I try to avoid tolls as much as possible especially in routes that don't even involve them. I have always found tolling to be like double tipping where you are told to pay a tip even though it was already included in the bill. Pretty much, why should a pay something to cross a bridge, tunnel, or even part of a highway when my tax dollars are already covering them? BTW, this is where the MTA collects most of its profits, which is not from the straphangers, who keep demanding us motorists foot most of the bill for them. Nevertheless, I didn't say getting an account costs money, I was mentioning paying it off does. Still, I think what is being done to monitor traffic is an invasion of privacy and should at least be given some public hearings before even considering it rather than doing this arbitrarily.
May 13, 2013, 5:52 pm
ty from pps says:
Tal, here's a direct quote...
* * * * * *
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Ty, you have to have an account for E-Z Pass. That is the part that is not free.
* * * * * *
What part of that is, "I didn't say getting an account costs money"?
May 13, 2013, 7:13 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Ty, don't forget that you on record for saying this in your last comment in proving how much you do personal attacks, "You, sir, are an idiot."
May 14, 2013, 6:56 pm
ty from pps says:
But Tal, is it really an "attack" when it's just stating a fact?
May 14, 2013, 11:36 pm

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