Noted UK news brand the Daily Mail served up a somewhat error-speckled tech scoop last night, with news that a government "'spy in the sky' system" is involved in a "secret 'Big Brother' operation... allowing officials to pinpoint the exact location of thousands of vehicles".
It emerged that the Mail scribes were talking about UK traffic-data company TrafficMaster selling its database to the government. The deal isn't terribly secret, actually - TrafficMaster is quite open about it.
Trafficmaster's SmartNav package uses kit fitted in users' cars and a call/data centre. The car is linked to TrafficMaster by GPRS (and a voice channel for the driver). Drivers can call in to TrafficMaster and ask for a route plan from the call centre; the call centre has real-time traffic data as well as ordinary mapping and locations.
Instructions are delivered by a dashboard speaker or optional screen. The car system has GPS satellite nav, and tells TrafficMaster where it goes in real time. This is one of the ways in which TrafficMaster knows about jams and congestion. But it's not a "spy in the sky", for God's sake - it's a spy in the cab. GPS satellites merely transmit a timing signal - they do not spy on people.
TrafficMaster sells the info in bulk to the Department for Transport. The Mail "has seen details of the £3m... small print makes clear that the information being collected is... potentially, sinister...
"This includes a unique number identifying the vehicle, two six-figure Ordnance Survey readings for the location, and the date and time when the information was captured. It also includes what kind of vehicle it is, the speed it is travelling and the direction.
"A snapshot of this information is collected at 15-minute intervals and then collated and provided in its raw form to the DfT ...
"The revelations will fuel concerns that Britain is turning into a surveillance society."
The Mail goes on to suggest that TrafficMaster "could provide the blueprint to monitor the location, speed and journey details of millions of drivers in years to come".
"Such a system might be used to manage a system of road pricing... It might also be used to identify speeding drivers.
"It could also be used by everyone from the police to the taxman to discover whether an individual is where they claim to have been at any point in time."
Well, maybe. In-car kit is indeed one of the ways that road pricing might be implemented, but it's expensive (SmartNav costs users £500 for the gear plus installation and monthly fees). It's also extremely easy to defeat. So is the Mail's fretting justified?