7:03 pm: Tollbooths
Mark drives through a toll plaza.
Who's watching: Mark's car has an I-Pass tag above the rearview mirror that lets him prepay tolls. The tag-a transponder that's activated by a signal from an antenna at the tollgate-sends the I-Pass ID number and the price of the toll to the system's central database. If there's enough money in the driver's account to cover the toll, an OK is transmitted back and the car is allowed to proceed. At the same time, a record of the time the vehicle arrived and left the tollbooth is logged into the I-Pass database.
Because the system uses the standard 802.11 wireless transmission protocol, it's dangerously easy to hack, potentially allowing snoops to keep track of the movements of specific cars. What's more, law enforcement authorities regularly subpoena records from I-Pass and similar systems to monitor individuals suspected of illicit activity.
Toll lanes may also be routinely monitored by video surveillance to nab scofflaws. In general, three cameras monitor each booth: One is aimed at the vehicle, the coin machine, and the fare display; the second camera is focused on the car's rear license plate and the stoplight at the front of the booth; and the third camera watches for vandalism and other incidents by recording from above.
7:11 pm: GPS
On his way to reassure his girlfriend at a new bistro, Mark gets lost.
Who's watching: Many new cars employ GPS-based navigation systems, which use a network of 24 satellites to help drivers find their way. The newest equipment also enables individuals to trace their own cars from a distance. For instance, parents can monitor the speed of teenage drivers; if they exceed a limit, the GPS system in the car will notify the parent, who can-via the Internet, cellphone, or a pager-honk the horn to tell the teenager to slow down. This technology also opens the way for government agencies to monitor the movement of people suspected of illegal activity. Car rental companies have already adopted these systems aggressively. Two years ago, James Turner of New Haven, Connecticut, discovered that Acme Rent-A-Car had taken $450 from his bank account as a penalty for speeding-based on information the company obtained by watching Turner's driving habits remotely. The company utilized a software program, AirIQ, that makes it possible to continuously monitor the location, speed, and direction of a fleet on digitized maps. Turner sued and won, because the state's Department of Consumer Protection ruled that Acme had not adequately notified him of the purpose of the GPS/AirIQ system. Still, more such cases seem inevitable.
Mark falls into bed feeling secure and anonymous. Just one thing's on his mind: how did that blood test turn out?
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.