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Down the rabbit hole, part 7: How to limit personal data collection from city cameras

Feb 27, 20176 mins
Internet of ThingsInternet SecuritySecurity

Traffic cameras used in cities and on highways make it nearly impossible to travel without your personal data being collected. Here are 3 options.

surveillance video cameras
Credit: Thinkstock

My home is my sanctuary. 

My computers (and handheld devices) all run free software systems that have been (fairly) tightly buttoned down and secured. My online documents, messaging and emails are handled either on my own servers or by companies dedicated to open source and security. 

Is my personal information 100 percent safe and unhackable? No, but it’s pretty good. And it’s about as good as I can get it without making significant sacrifices in the name of privacy. 

But eventually I need to leave my home. And that is where things get much more difficult. 

Let’s talk, briefly, about the challenges faced when trying to maintain a certain level of personal privacy when traveling around your city. 

I don’t want to get into the issues with traveling long distances or across borders (yet), which presents a whole other set of problems. Nor am I qualified to instruct you on how to move around the city or town in which you live completely undetected by other humans. I simply do not have the Ninja training required to pull off such a feat. 

Limiting exposure to automated data collection from cameras

What I am concerned with is automated data collection and limiting my total exposure to it. 

Example: I hop in my car and drive to the donut shop. A simple errand. Let’s say the donut place I am driving to is only a few blocks away, which means I need to drive through roughly five or six traffic lights to get to my destination (then the same number on the return trip).

Traffic cameras collect the license plate and an image of the driver of the car (in this case, me) at each intersection. These have been automated in many locales to serve multiple purposes. Some use them as “red light” cameras to automatically detect when someone drives through a red stop light and issue the owner of the car a ticket. 


Follow Bryan Lunduke’s quest to make his digital life as private and secure as possible:


Other areas also use these (and other traffic cameras not located at signal lights) to automatically charge a toll for use of specific roads, bridges or lanes. Other cameras are used primarily to gauge traffic flow (and adjust on-ramp lights, etc.). 

If you happen to have a new(-ish) car, there’s also a good chance you can be tracked by the car itself. 

In other words, it’s a lot of data. Sometimes the data is very general and not necessarily tied to an individual. Other times that data is incredibly specific about each individual (clothes worn, direction traveling, car being used, other people in vehicle, current and overall speed, etc.). 

Many people would argue that there are good reasons for all of these forms of monitoring. I would, respectfully, disagree with those people in the strongest of terms (though I do, also, see the potential benefits). But that’s not the purpose of this article; I’m not here to convince you that these cameras tracking your moves outside of your home are a bad thing. 

3 options to improve privacy, limit monitoring in cities 

If you’re already convinced that this sort of monitoring is not something you want to be a part of—that you don’t want a mountain of information about you being gathered, stored, analyzed and searched—then you (and I) are really left with three options. 

  1. Don’t drive cars. 
  2. Drive cars, but find ways to obfuscate the data and become a Ninja-like stealth driver.
  3. Never leave the house. 

Those are not the easiest of options for most of us to swallow, but that’s the reality of the world we live in. 

Clearly I want to leave the house (at least on occasion). That means item 3 is not an option. And option 2 is possibly going to land me in jail—or more likely, simply not work because I would make the worst Ninja imaginable. 

Which leaves me with the simple, obvious solution (and the only option left): simply don’t drive cars. At least not very often. And, when I do, I should drive much older cars with no tracking systems of any kind within them. 

For me, this solution works fairly well—most of the time. I live in a big city, in a location where I can easily walk or bicycle to roughly 90 percent of the stores, doctors offices, parks, etc. that I go to on a regular basis. And I get a little exercise and fresh air in the process. Not a bad thing. 

But there are going to always be places I need to go that are outside the range of my bike. If I’m not driving (and that includes rental cars, uber rides, etc.), that means public transit. Again, I’m fairly lucky in the area I live. It has reasonably good bus coverage and excellent light rail throughout the region. And luckily, these can be paid for in good, old-fashioned cash. 

There are security cameras in much of the public transit. This is a slight concern, though far fewer total data points are collected this way than if I were driving a car, which is a good thing. 

And in those instances when public transit isn’t an option (due to the location, timing, weather, etc.), then, well, I can drive a car—which opens me up to all of the various bits of data collection I outlined earlier. 

You know what? It’s still a massive improvement. 

By driving for, let’s say, only one out of five errands, I reduce the total amount of data points being collected on me by automated systems to a tiny fraction of what it would otherwise be. It’s only about 20 percent. 

It isn’t perfect, but like so much of my efforts to secure my life, it’s about as good as I can get it without needing to make real sacrifices in the name of personal privacy.


Bryan Lunduke began his computing life on a friend's Commodore 64, then moved on to a Franklin Ace... and then a 286 running MS-DOS. This was followed by an almost random-seeming string of operating systems: ranging from AmigaOS to OS/2, and even including MacOS 8. Eventually, Bryan tried Linux. And there he stayed. In 2006, Bryan founded the Linux Action Show - growing it into the largest Linux-centric podcast on the planet. He's also the creator of 'Linux Tycoon,' the video game about managing a Linux distribution. Today, he is a writer and works as the Social Media Marketing Manager of SUSE. On this here blog, he seeks to accomplish two goals: 1) To be the voice of reason and practicality in the Linux and Open Source world. 2) To highlight the coolest things happening throughout the world of Linux.