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Maryland contract to track motorists’ locations put on hold

State Highway Administration administrator Greg Slater stands among screens that monitor traffic flows. (Bryan P. Sears)

State Highway Administration Administrator Greg Slater stands among screens that monitor traffic flows. (Bryan P. Sears)

A state contract with a San Francisco-based software provider to provide traffic data by tracking motorists’ smartphone apps has been put on hold after one Board of Public Works member raised privacy concerns.

A vote on the one-year, $236,000 sole-source contract with Streetlight Insight was delayed for at least two weeks after Comptroller Peter Franchot asked for a briefing on how the cloud-based service works and what information is tracked and stored.

Franchot said the proposal for a pilot program “struck me as a little problematic in the sense that we may be collecting data about our citizens that they would not be very happy that we are amassing in some research project. I’m wondering if this project is capable of figuring out where I live and where I work based on the frequency of my travels to those destinations.”

“I’m not saying there’s any ill will here,” said Franchot. “I’m just saying, well I grew up reading George Orwell’s ‘1984.’”

Franchot asked Gov. Larry Hogan to delay the vote. Hogan and Franchot are two of three members of the panel. The third member, Treasurer Nancy Kopp, was absent and traveling out of the country celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary.

The program, which was tested earlier in a small area on the Eastern Shore, tracks traffic movements using location-enabled services that are on hundreds of smartphone applications, including dating, weather and traffic applications.

The program provides 24 hour data 365 days a year — something other companies could not do, according to state officials.

The company has similar programs in Virginia, Minnesota, Ohio, and New York City.

Federal funding to the state would be used to pay for the program.

Greg Slater, administrator for the State Highway Administration, said data from the service will allow traffic engineers to better understand how traffic moves in the age of smartphone navigation systems such as Waze, which drivers use to navigate around congested areas. He compared the congestion and use of real-time navigation services to the flow of water.

“It changes the travel patterns and creates an issue on the local systems that we need to understand better,” said Slater.

Over a three-month demonstration period, use of the program on the Eastern Shore provided data on how traffic moves that the state will use to plan future transportation projects, according to  the Department of Transportation.  The hope is that the expanded use of the program will provide information that can be used to support Hogan’s traffic-relief initiatives on the Baltimore Beltway including the interchange with Interstate 70.

The use of the cloud service, which scrubs and anonymizes the data from smartphone applications, means the state doesn’t own or control private information, according to state officials.

“It’s the opposite of that,” Slater said. “It’s to protect from those types of practices.”

Thomson settlement

The board also voted without discussion to approve a $101,500 settlement with Candus Thomson, a former spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Police, who sued the state after she was effectively demoted for comments made about a candidate for governor on Facebook.

The settlement comes as the result of mediation, following a lawsuit filed by Thomson in U.S. District Court in which she claimed her bosses violated her First Amendment rights when it punished her for making the comment.

Thomson, a journalist with 40 years experience, alleged she was demoted less than a week after she responded to a Facebook post about Ben Jealous that was precipitated by the Democratic Party nominee for governor vetoing a Hagerstown Herald-Mail reporter’s participation on a gubernatorial campaign debate panel. Thomson called Jealous an “a–clown” in her post.

Thomson won an injunction barring her demotion that lasted for about three days until her scheduled retirement.

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