Published August 14, 2013
Drivers in the Vancouver area are unknowingly helping to track traffic congestion, as their cellphone GPS signals are being automatically fed into a new online traffic map.
TransLink, Transport Canada and B.C.’s Transportation Ministry have unveiled an online, colour-coded traffic map of the Lower Mainland with real-time updates that indicate areas of congestion.
“It tracks your cellphone signals, and based on that, it directs that data online,” said TransLink spokeswoman Jiana Ling.
“So when you check and see exactly if there is traffic currently in the area you’re wishing to travel to, you can plan accordingly,” said Ling.
Ling said TransLink does not receive any personal data from cellphone signals and that all personal information is “scrambled and anonymized” before it is pushed to the map.
“Cellphone signals within the telecom network gets picked up and stripped off of any personal information at the source,” Ling said in an email statement to CBC News.
“TransLink’s data provider then processes the anonymous cellphone signals through a specialized algorithm. This algorithm generates the average speed of commuters on the road network and TransLink posts this information online. The algorithm can only generate the average speed of the road network, it cannot identify the travel patterns of any specific cellphone user.”
But Tom Keenan, an online security expert at the University of Calgary, questions how secure the software is.
“If they did a good job, the hackers will walk away and say, ‘We can’t get anything.’ If they did a bad job, you can be rest assured that your Uncle Charlie is going to be tracked on the freeway.”
Micheal Vonn, policy director for the BC Civil Liberties Association, said TransLink failed to commission a privacy impact assessment for the map, something it is legally bound to do.
“In the rush to use these new technologies, the obvious steps for consideration around privacy and security have been missed,” Vonn said.
Ling said TransLink conducted an internal review and decided a privacy assessment was not required since the data it receives does not contain any personal information.
The $1.2-million project covers all numbered highways in Metro Vancouver between Whistler, Chilliwack and White Rock.
It is available on DriveBC, via the map view on both the website and mobile app. Users should select the option for Metro-Vancouver Traffic Data.
Transport authorities will also use the data to help plan future updates and improvements to highways.
The GPS tracking technology used for B.C.’s new live traffic map is the same technology used by Google Maps and many GPS devices featuring live traffic maps.