Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“I consider Paine our greatest political thinker. As we have not advanced, and perhaps never shall advance, beyond the Declaration and Constitution, so Paine has had no successors who extended his principles.”     Thomas Alva Edison

September 14, 2009

H.R. 3311 is an oxymoron

by Quincy

Democratic Congressman Earl Blumenauer is seeking to inflict yet another tax on the American people. This one, though, is far more insidious than the average tax thought up by Congress:

The “Road User Fee Pilot Project” would be administered by the US Treasury Department. This agency in turn would issue millions in taxpayer-backed grants to well-connected commercial manufacturers of tolling equipment to help develop the required technology. Within eighteen months of the measure’s passage, the department would file an initial report outlining the best methods for adopting the new federal transportation tax.

So, why is it an oxymoron? Here’s the offending passage from Blumenauer’s legislation:

(3) EVALUATION OF METHODS AND TECH-
NOLOGIES.—Technologies and methods tested under
the Road User Fee Pilot Project shall be evaluated
on the basis of—

(A) protection of personal privacy,

- H.R. 3311

Blumenauer calls the Oregon experiment on this subject a success:

“Oregon has successfully tested a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee, and it is time to expand and test the VMT program across the country,” Blumenauer said in a statement on the bill’s introduction. “A VMT system can better assess fees based on use of our roads and bridges, as well as during times of peak congestion, than a fee based on fuel consumption. It is time to get creative and find smart ways to rebuild and renew America’s deteriorating infrastructure.”

In January, I posted here on the same Oregon experiment:

[T]he device must be receiving precise positional data as an input from its GPS unit. It must also have a clock set to the real time and date as an input. This means that the device is getting data on the exact position of the vehicle at any moment, and that the control software is only storing certain datapoints based on this. This is an adequate privacy safeguard, right? Probably not.

Imagine this scenario: You’re driving a car with one of these GPS devices at the leisurely clip of 60 MPH on the highway leading into Klamath Falls. Like all highways in Oregon, the limit is still 55 MPH. A cop catches you going over the limit and pulls you over. You go through the normal rigmarole with him, except this time he checks your GPS devices and finds out that you’ve exceeded 55 MPH in the state of Oregon 22 times since the device was last read. You leave this encounter with 22 speeding tickets instead of one.

That scenario is possible with the hardware described in the device and minimal changes in the software. Only the good will of the Oregon state government is keeping it from being so. Should Oregonians really rely on that alone to protect their privacy?

The same holds true of Blumenauer’s proposal. To accomplish its stated goals, the technology must be designed in such a way that it either keeps a complete and total record of one’s driving or can be modified to do so. If Blumenauer’s proposal becomes law, each and every vehicle in the US will have a device carrying data about the habits of its drivers.

Even if we operate under the foolish assumption that the devices will, through their lifetimes, only be readable by those authorized to read them, they still pose a massive threat to privacy. There will exist a massive data set on each vehicle, tied by name to the owner. Such data sets are prime targets for “creative use” by miscreants both within government and outside it.

When one takes into account the exposure to cracking the Oregon model presents with readers in every gas station across the country and devices in every car, the idea that the content of these will remain secret to all but the government becomes ludicrous. The model presents the same problem as cell phone encryption. Once a security measure is cracked and vulnerable, how does one go about updating millions of pieces of hardware scattered over thousands of miles? If the devices’ security can be updated remotely, then malware can be inserted. If the devices’ security cannot be updated, then the device must be replaced every time the system is sufficiently compromised.

So, how does this bill meet its own requirement of protecting privacy? To abide by the quoted section of H.R. 3311, the researchers commissioned for the study must recommend that the other goals of the bill not be pursued. Of course, considering the bill’s intent is to find a way to track our cars, the people studying this issue are highly unlikely to issue such a recommendation, instead saying that the good graces of Washington and the presumed integrity of the security measures will be enough to keep our privacy intact. Like so much of what emanates from Congress, that will be pure bull****.


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