Traffic Plan Worries Privacy Advocates County Plans System to Ease Road Congestion

By Lissau, Russell | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), August 2, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Traffic Plan Worries Privacy Advocates County Plans System to Ease Road Congestion


Lissau, Russell, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Russell Lissau Daily Herald Staff Writer

A high-tech system that will let Lake County officials monitor local traffic conditions has government watchdogs concerned about potential privacy violations.

Activists with groups including the American Civil Liberties Union realize the county's intelligent transportation system is designed to alleviate traffic gridlock and could greatly benefit local motorists. But they worry the government could combine information garnered from the images with other seemingly innocent bits of data to build databases about our lives.

They also fear such camera-based systems could be used to spy on motorists or pedestrians under the guise of law enforcement or homeland security.

Such furtive activity isn't far-fetched. Industry representatives and government officials say intelligent- transportation technology can do much more than traffic management, including surveillance tasks like tracking escaped criminals.

Privacy activists want lawmakers to adopt legislation that would prevent abuses of systems like the one planned for Lake County by regulating how they can be used.

"When you start talking about setting up cameras that can track everybody everywhere, it's anathema to the idea that Americans should be free to go about their business without the government looking over their shoulder," said Jay Stanley, spokesman for the ACLU's technology and liberty program. "We need to extend our laws to protect our privacy, so we can enjoy the benefits of these technologies without having to be afraid of them."

Traffic experts contend intelligent transportation systems - often referred to by the acronym "ITS" or as smart roads - can reduce congestion and keep motorists better informed about road conditions.

Such a system is needed here, Lake County officials insist, because gridlock is regularly cited as the region's biggest problem.

"You can't get anywhere in rush hour, and the east-west roads are impassible," said Lake County Board member Diana O'Kelly, a Mundelein Republican who leads the panel's public works and transportation committee. "And if there's an accident anywhere, it messes up the whole system."

Dubbed "Lake County Passage," the local smart-road project will use cameras mounted on every stoplight, pavement sensors and other equipment to determine whether traffic is moving smoothly.

A $1.3 million traffic management center being built in Libertyville will control the system. Based on what they see on their monitors, employees with the county's transportation division will be able to electronically adjust traffic lights to keep motorists moving. They'll also relay commuting information to drivers via digital roadside signs.

The early phases of the project will cost an estimated $8.8 million, but a price tag for the entire system has not been determined.

The Lake County Board is hardly the first agency to endorse smart-road technology. Similar systems have been implemented throughout the United States and internationally for decades; the Illinois Department of Transportation created one for the area's expressways in the 1960s.

"ITS is an operational tool. When it's properly applied, it's cost effective and can be very beneficial," said Jeff Hochmuth, president of a professional organization called the Intelligent Transportation Society of the Midwest. Although intelligent transportation systems are designed to relieve traffic congestion, experts have identified other potential uses.

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