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State downplays privacy concerns on traffic-monitoring program

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)

State Highway Administration officials are once again asking the Board of Public Works to approve a contract with a San Francisco-based company that will monitor traffic patterns using smartphone application data, brushing aside concerns that were raised about privacy issues.

The $236,000 contract for a subscription to StreetLight Insight was delayed in May after Comptroller Peter Franchot at a board meeting expressed concerns about how the company and the state would collect and use the data.

In a letter to the board after that meeting, State Highways Administrator Gregory Slater wrote that the company and the state will not have access to data that could individually identify drivers.

“StreetLight Insight does not collect cellular data on its own and does not store location-based information with people’s names, or other (personally identifiable information,” Slater wrote in a May letter obtained this week by The Daily Record. “The location-based data stored in StreetLight Insight’s database is not associated with any individual person, home or private company.”

The three-person Board of Public Works is scheduled to consider the approval of the contract at its meeting Wednesday. The board is made up of Gov. Larry Hogan, Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp.

The unique cloud-based program provides real-time 24 hour data 365 days a year.

StreetLight Data Inc., developer of the service, has similar programs in Virginia, Minnesota, Ohio, and New York City.

Data collected by the service allows traffic engineers to better understand how traffic bottlenecks and how smartphone navigation programs such as Waze encourage drivers to divert from highways onto other roads. That information could then be used to prioritize transportation projects.

State highways officials hope to use the program to monitor traffic flow in Baltimore County, particularly at the Interstate 695 interchange with Interstate 70.

Hogan has made reduction of traffic congestion a priority of his administration.

In his letter, Slater went on to say that StreetLight Data LLC doesn’t receive personally identifiable information from any of the location-enabled applications it uses and does not provide any such data to third parties, including the Maryland Department of Transportation.

“When (personally identifiable information) data is removed, also said to be ‘scrubbed,’ it means a person’s name, home address, or anything related to that person has been disassociated from the location-based data,” Slater wrote. “The location-based data itself is then separated out into multiple trips, scrambled with other trips, reassigned multiple different identifiers that cannot be traced back to any specific vehicle or person, and then grouped into regions, like zip code, rather than a specific address.”

The end result is that the database “is unable to, for example, follow someone’s trip from their house to a school,” according to Slater.

A spokesman for the comptroller Friday declined to comment on Slater’s letter, saying the contract, which is paid for by a federal grant, is pending before the board.

In May, Franchot asked for the contract to be pulled, saying the system “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.”

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

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

Franchot, speaking in May, said he had serious concerns that the program could allow for individuals to be tracked from point of origin to a destination.

“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.’”

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