9/22/13. Highways Agency tracks millions of motorists’ handsets in ‘smart’ trials. Steve Hawkes, telegraph.co.uk
“The Highways Agency is harvesting information from the devices as part of a project to monitor traffic flow and ease congestion.
The information is being passed on by mobile phone companies and other data firms so the agency can identify areas of heavy traffic and help motorists avoid them.
The agency says that all the information it receives is processed and anonymous so that the movements of an individual motorist cannot be identified.
However, Big Brother Watch, the privacy campaign group, said the scheme raised more questions about the extent to which people’s movements were being tracked and their data used without their knowledge.
Nick Pickles, its director, said: “This yet another example of how our lives are being monitored at an extremely detailed level, and just how much of that data is being shared and sold on for a vast range of purposes.
“People will probably have no idea that this information is being used by the Highways Agency. The question has to be asked if there is a less intrusive way to get this kind of data, and if it is so essential that it is so detailed as to require live data from the devices in people’s cars.”
The Highways Agency initiative comes just weeks after it emerged a company was using recycling bins to track the smartphones of passers-by in the City of London.
Renew London had fitted devices into 12 “pods”, which feature advertising screens, to compile “aggregated” data on who was walking past.
Shopping centres are using smarter data in an effort to boost business. Intu – the owner of the Trafford Centre in Manchester – monitors where customers are shopping by tracking their movements once they have signed up to the mall’s Wi-Fi connection. Shoppers are tracked to see which stores they use and the length of their visit.
Critics of the growth in the use of personal data by companies claim that many customers have no idea they have unwittingly “opted-in” to be monitored.
The Highways Agency is conducting two trials using information from mobile phones and satnavs. In one, delayed, or “historic”, information is being used to monitor traffic trends, but in the other, “real time” information is being used to assist in traffic management, helping to direct motorists around traffic jams and accidents.
In the first trial, being conducted on the M25 and feeder routes such as parts of the M11, M4, A3 and A20, the agency uses data provided by mobile phone operators.
The companies track motorists by recording each time their handset moves into a different geographic mobile phone “cell”, typically an area of several square miles.
In the second trial, across the rest of the country, real-time “geolocation” data is being collected from signals generated by smartphone apps, satnav-type devices or vehicle tracking kits used by road haulage operators that work by GPS.
The agency has traditionally relied on number plate recognition cameras, road sensors and rubber hoses laid out across the road to gauge traffic volumes and put in place warnings and diversions. It believes that by using information from mobile phones and satnavs it can analyse traffic flow more widely and cut down on the cost of other monitoring measures.
Traffic levels in Britain are predicted to rise steeply over coming decades.
A report for the Department for Transport earlier this year warned that average speeds will plummet and journey times increase, bringing gridlock to cities and motorways.
It forecast that traffic levels will remain flat or fall, as they have done for the past five years, until 2015, as the economic recovery takes hold. After that, it predicts that traffic levels will increase 19 per cent by 2025 – equivalent to an extra 6.6million vehicles on the road – while between 2010 and 2040 it expects traffic to increase by 43 per cent, or 14.9 million cars.
The trials mark a radical shift from previous traffic management systems. Number plate recognition dates back to 1976 when the British Police Scientific Development Branch first tested prototypes.
Cameras at hundreds of sites on motorways and trunk roads read number plates as cars go past. The number plate is converted into a “non-unique number” at the roadside, which is then tracked as the driver continues on a journey.
Monitoring methods such as induction loops buried under roads are still used, whereby a car’s body triggers an electric signal.
In some parts of the country, motorists can still see thin rubber hoses stretched across roads that measure traffic by recording changes to air pressure when cars pass over.”