Maintain radio silence

Did you remember to turn on airplane mode on your phone when driving through Belmont, Massachusetts? Town officials want to ban nonresidents from town roads. Part of their plan is to track your phone to catch you trespassing.

Phones and tablets are very talkative. Even when you’re not using them they’re transmitting signals to see if anybody wants to talk to them. Every message includes your phone’s unique device identifier. Decades ago transportation planners used this information for good. Now they use it to figure out how to stop you.

The basic problem is, Belmont residents want the right to drive through other towns but they don’t want to reciprocate by letting nonresidents drive through their town. It’s a common attitude. I wrote about Newton’s “gated community” ordinance, and I may write about Lincoln’s planned ghetto. They just happen to be a little more selfish than average.

Remember when Google got in trouble for supposedly wiretapping people using street view cars? In that case the cars were recording stationary signals with a moving radio. Traffic spies do the opposite, use a stationary radio to track moving signals.

It used to be turning off your phone’s radio would turn off your phone’s radio. In iOS 11 Apple decided that off meant on. Part of the reason is to assist location tracking. Airplane mode really turns off the radios. We think.

Personally I don’t talk or text while driving, so it’s no real burden to turn off my phone’s radio. But my car has a phone of its own, to enable roadside assistance and concierge services I don’t use. You may need to start pulling fuses if you want to be stealthy.

Radio silence is a short term solution. It defeats low budget adversaries. Radio scanners are cheap and small. A town rich enough to hire traffic obstruction consultants can afford license plate scanners. The idea can be tested quietly with a handful of cameras at the town line, but unattended ticket cameras won’t last long. A town serious about defending its territory will invest in a dual purpose solution: in-car scanners.

A lot of police cars already have license plate scanners. They’re tens of thousands of dollars per car, but in a town with a ten billion dollar tax base that’s not a lot. The way it works is the scanner reads every license plate it can see, records each plate with location and time, and sounds an alarm if one of them is on a hit list. Wanted felon, overdue parking ticket, it’s time for a high speed chase. (Officer’s ex, it’s time to take a look to see who she’s with. That’s what professional spies do with their databases.)

For anti-commuter patrols you’d need the opposite of a hit list, a list of good plates. Massachusetts towns already have them. The RMV sends tax collectors a list of license plates belonging to town residents. Any plate not on the list is a potential criminal.

It’s possible that some of the plan is illegal. Aren’t these public roads? A traffic restriction that de jure or de facto bans nonresidents may not be legal. From the point of view of town officials that doesn’t really matter.

I often say, action is not based on what the law says but rather what the actor can get away with. The chance of towns or elected officials being liabile for violating your rights is neglibible. Like in Leonia, New Jersey, the worst case for local officials is they get away with it for a few years while lawyers fight it out.

Lawyers do cost some money, but not much on the scale of a town that can afford to play these games. A DPW director in a smaller town told me residents were willing to spend hundreds of thousands on traffic obstruction consultants while he couldn’t get a ten thousand dollar safety project funded.

This is an unfortunate side effect of the balkanization of government. Fifty years ago the state of Massachusetts and its counties had a lot of power. If you wanted a speed bump the county commissioners would say no. If you wanted a four way stop sign state engineers would say no. Now every town wants to be a little kingdom. We hate sharing schools, emergency dispatch, or any of the services that counties provide in most of the United States. And we hate sharing roads.

The good news is, I’ve realized I was overengineering when I proposed using plate scanners to track police cars, or using direction finders to track radar. Officers’ cell phones and similar gadgets are already broadcasting their locations.

Every day there’s more reason for us to listen.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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