Government Surveillance Records Show E-ZPass Readers Around New York City

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April 22, 2015 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union this morning released a trove of government records that reveal that both city and state transportation agencies have set up E-ZPass readers in locations far from toll plazas. The records are part of the NYCLU’s new webpage that hosts records on how government agencies collect information on innocent New Yorkers, which includes recently released documents on Stingray surveillance equipment.

“New Yorkers have a right to know if our government is collecting information about us, what they’re doing with it and how long they’re keeping it for,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “One piece of information rarely says much about you, but bits and pieces collected over time can paint a detailed portrait of person – their political beliefs, religious affiliations, medical issues and even personal relationships. The documents the NYCLU is releasing provide a glimpse into some of the information the government is collecting on us every day.”

The NYCLU has filed Freedom of Information Law requests across New York State to better understand local governments’ acquisition and use of new surveillance technology. E-ZPass readers are devices that scan and read the electronic tags that drivers keep in their cars for the purpose of paying tolls through the E-ZPass systems. The NYCLU filed FOIL requests on the use of E-ZPass readers after news reports indicated that the readers were being used in locations across New York City far from any toll booths.

Through its FOIL requests, the NYCLU learned that both city and state transportation agencies have set up E-ZPass readers around the state, including in 149 locations around New York City, as part of traffic studies. The NYCLU released maps indicating where the readers are located, with additional documents regarding the Stingray cell phone tracking device. Records on the use of Automatic License Plate Readers are coming soon.

“The government should address the privacy concerns of its residents as it adopts new technology and tell the public when it is collecting information about innocent people’s comings and goings,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose. “As agencies invest in new technology they must also be held accountable; New Yorkers deserve to know that any information the government has on them isn’t being abused.”

Also available on the website are requests filed by the NYCLU on the Erie County (Buffalo) Sheriff’s Office and the State Police’s use of Stingrays, a cell phone tracking device that allows police to spy on cell phones in the area by mimicking a cell phone tower. These devices are so precise that they can pinpoint a person’s location in their own home, collect numbers that a person has been texting and calling, and in some configurations intercept the content of communications.

Given the invasive nature of this particular device, the NYCLU sought information about privacy protections governing the use of such technology, but was issued a blanket denial from the Sheriff’s Office with no indication as to what records existed, if any, and which they were simply refusing to release. After the initial response from the Sheriff’s Office, the NYCLU filed an appeal requesting the same documents and citing the flawed logic used in the original denial. The Erie County Sheriff’s Office failed to reply to the appeal, forcing the NYCLU to file a lawsuit against challenging the continued refusal to disclose public information.

The documents the NYCLU got highlight a failure to adequately protect New Yorkers’ privacy as well as a failure to inform the public on how the new technology is being used by local government agencies across the state. The NYCLU will continue to post documents it collects through its FOIL requests as it gets them.

View and download the E-ZPass documents