Franklin Countys First News

Politics & Other Mistakes: On the paranoia highway

Al Diamon

The Maine Department of Transportation is watching you.

So is the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Other state agencies could get in on that action, as well, including nosy law-enforcement types, who might have an extra-judicial interest in knowing where you’re going.

This isn’t some dystopian fantasy or example of Russian collusion or what passes for everyday life in the People’s Republic of China. It’s the new reality on Maine’s busiest highways. Without asking permission from anyone, the state has begun accessing data from your cell phones and mobile devices to determine your location on the turnpike and Interstate system.

On April 17, the Portland Press Herald published a fluffy little story about how the DOT and MTA were spending $1.3 million on 10 high-tech signs located at key spots on I-95 and I-295 that not only tell you how far you are from certain destinations, but also how long it will take to drive that distance under current traffic conditions. “They update using location data scraped from cell phone apps and mobile devices to estimate traffic buildup and travel times,” the article said. “The location data is processed to remove identifying information,” according to a DOT official.

There’s nobody I trust more to remove identifying data than the transportation department. Except Facebook.
Even if all that spending on this unneeded technology is justified (it isn’t), the stuff about data scrubbing bears serious scrutiny. These bureaucrats aren’t even pretending they’re not invading your privacy by seizing your personal information without asking. They’re just claiming they aren’t using it to determine if you’re on your way to a phony massage parlor, a meeting of a terrorist cell, or headed for New Hampshire to buy cheap booze. Because DOT totally could be doing that if it wasn’t such an ethical upholder of individual liberty.

What’s weird about this snooping is that nobody seems upset about it. It’s as if we’ve become so used to being under surveillance from store cams, digital assistants, and our internet service providers maintaining lists of every porn site we’ve ever visited (I was just doing research, honest) that we no longer care if Big Brother is watching.

That acceptance of intrusive government by a compliant public would make an excellent plot for a novel. Somebody should write that. Feel free to use the Big Brother thing.

In a rational world, there’d be no excuse for the state collecting this data without a court order issued after a judge reviewed evidence you were dealing drugs, bribing college admission officials or considering giving a prestigious award to Don McLean. In such a world, you’d be able to drive where you liked without worrying that anyone – particularly the government, teenage hackers or Alexa – was monitoring your progress.

But that’s not the world we live in. In our warped reality, we’re past the point where wearing tinfoil hats and underwear made from recycled plastic grocery bags is going to protect us. The FBI, CIA, NSA, ICE, TXD and UNICEF are all perfectly capable of reading your mind and monitoring your digestive system (except maybe TXD, which I made up). Compared to that, the DOT and MTA’s intrusions seem minor.

If, however, we’re ever going to reclaim our right to be left alone, we have to start somewhere. It’s either those damn highway signs or the microphones they’ve implanted in your walls.

If you email me now at, your message will arrive in 15 seconds. How do I know this? Never mind.

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3 Responses »

  1. There is nothing illegal about data collection, especially when people agree to let it happen. On Google Play when somebody downloads an app, this pops up " This app(appname) would like access to the following, Location, Camera, photos, microphone, wifi connection information, to manage call data, manage power settings, make and receive phone calls, access caller ID, etc and the whole plethora of other things that app developers ask for, that people agree to by tapping OK. Privacy is a myth in today's world, actually that's wrong, there is privacy, wait, I take that back, because even if you go live way off in the woods with no power, no phone, no internet, the folks who own satellites would know where you are, so you would show up on Google Earth and Google Maps, so yeah, privacy is a myth. MTA for example gets info from the GPS(Garmin, TOM TOM) or Google which owns Android, goes data mining to keep traffic updates current from the collected data of the MTA signs. EZPass, is a travel logger, Big Apple rewards tag, is another source of info, pretty much everything you interact with in the world is keeping track of what you do. Walk through the doors at Walmart, the metal on you or in your pockets pings a logger to let them know how many people are in the store at any given time. The cash register keeps track of the things you buy and how you paid. My advice, pay in cash and stay at home and offline as much as possible and remove the batteries from your tablet, phone and laptop.

  2. I mean...tons of people were warned about things like this at the time cell phones were becoming common 20 years ago, and the "EZ Pass" toll system was going in. They generally laughed when people told them this would happen. Smart TVs, Alexa, etc...why the apparent 'shock' when we find out that yes, they do collect every bit they can get on us? It is he PRODUCT of many It's just getting started, too. They have BIG plans for their little data-providers! Look to Google + China to see what's next.

    Nobody cared before - why now? It's far too late, unless you dump the stupid cell phone and disable your car's GPS junk. People pay for convenience...the currency is your private information. Your choice; be advised that one day, the info WILL be used against you, though (higher insurance rates based on risk found out about you, things like this). Your Big Gov partnering with tech, be sure to vote for more big gov't, ok?

  3. There is an interesting technological 'tug of war' going on. Technology can be used by "big government," but it also gives more information to individuals and provides the tools to deal with things locally that used to require a government bureaucracy. The ways small groups and individuals can be empowered by the information revolution runs up against how big business and big government (neither very trustworthy) will try to use it to advance their position. It could lead to more decentralization, or stronger central governments. I'm actually rather optimistic that the empowering aspect will trump the threat of further centralization. But time will tell.