Using cell phones to monitor traffic is an excellent example of how reducing privacy can lead to increases in efficiency and productivity.

Several state transportation agencies, including those in Maryland and Virginia, are beginning to test technology that allows them to monitor traffic by tracking cellphone signals and mapping them against road grids. The technology highlights how readily cellphones can become tracking devices for companies or government agencies - a development that troubles privacy advocates.

These new traffic systems can monitor several hundred thousand cellphones at once. The phones need only be turned on, not in use. And sophisticated software now makes it possible to discern whether a signal is coming from, say, a moving car or a pedestrian.

State officials say the systems will monitor large clusters of phones, not individual phones, and the benefits could be substantial. By providing a constantly updated picture of traffic flow across thousands of miles of highways, they argue, cellphone tracking can help transportation agencies spot congestion and divert drivers by issuing alerts by radio or on electronic road signs.

One estimate in the article is that such a system could reduce congestion by half in some circumstances, resulting in incredible gains for individuals and for the economy. The downside is that the government, or some private corporation, could track the movements of large aggregates of people in real time -- and perhaps even specific individuals. Any given person can simply turn off their cell phone to avoid being tracked, but that choice brings its own costs. In the end, no one will be able to have it all.



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