City Considering Partnership with Data Company, Residents Fear Privacy Violations
Aug 04, 2016 03:48PM
By Tori LaRue
Pictured is a Blyncsy sensor that tracks movement of electronic devices to provide real-time data. West Jordan City is considered using the sensors to track traffic. – Blyncsy
By Tori La Rue | [email protected]
West Jordan, Utah - The West Jordan City Council considered a three-month trial of Blyncsy, a smart traffic software that monitors electronic devices but dismissed the idea after hearing privacy concerns from residents.
While city officials conduct traffic studies frequently, Blyncsy would track West Jordan’s traffic by assessing the movement of cell phones, tables, laptops, fitbits and smart watches within the city. Residents began voicing their distaste for the idea in city meetings and on social media after Blyncsy presented a potential contract to the council on June 22.
The council scheduled a public hearing for July 13, which was rescheduled to July 27 before being moved to Aug. 10, pending a motion. None of the council members made a motion to move the July 27 meeting to Aug. 10. Councilmember Chris McConnehey, the only council member who voiced his opinion about Blyncsy at the July 27 meeting, said he didn't think there was "a public appetite to see the city get involved in that kind of personal information."
City staff or elected officials would need to bring Blyncsy's proposal back to the attention of the council at a later date to move forward with any kind of agreement, according to David Brickey, city attorney.
"The matter may be dead as far as I am concerned," Brickey said. "The city attorney's office will not take any more actions to review the contract because it is not moving anywhere as far as I can tell."
How Blyncsy Works
Blyncsy sensors are installed on traffic signals to read MAC addresses from electronic devices that connect to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The sensors convert the addresses into randomized Blyncsy IDs, which allow the company to decipher traffic movement at any given moment.
Because the randomized identifier is consistent, the company can gather many kinds of data, including how long it takes to get to point A to point B at a specific time, how much of the city’s daily traffic is coming from residents compared to visitors and which traffic light signals need new timers.
“We hope, in the future, to make our data ready for real-time traffic synchronization so that having a phone on you actually helps the light know where you are,” Blyncsy CEO Mark Pittman said. “We hope to green light ambulances and fire trucks through traffic lights. There are a host of benefits in the works.”
The $15,000 study would have given West Jordan access to a cloud-based dashboard of figures, graphs and images that would demonstrate what was going on in real time within the city, without giving the city access to raw data.
Blyncsy’s plan is to use cities' infrastructure to bridge the gap between traffic information that can be harnessed by residents, government and businesses, according to Pittman. Once within a city, the company plans to sell their interpreted data to businesses to drive economic development in areas where traffic is high.
“This is data that is accurate, more so than what I think the other studies have been—certainly better than what UDOT does—so that’s why I wanted them to present to the council,” Mayor Kim Rolfe said at the June 22 city council meeting, adding that $15,000 is inexpensive for a city that spends millions on traffic studies each year, often spending $100,000 on a single study.
Early Opinions of City Council Members
Councilmember Jeff Haaga agreed with Rolfe, adding that the study would boost economic development and build a partnership between the city and businesses. Councilmember Sophie Rice said she was opposed to adopting any contract with Blyncsy and said she preferred methods of less surveillance.
Other council members were still trying to form opinions after Blynscy presented to them. Councilmember Zach Jacob said he wasn’t sure if UDOT would accept Blyncsy’s information. He said he’d need to find out whether UDOT would actually widen roads or change intersections based off of Blynscy’s data before he would make a decision. Councilmember Chad Nichols said he thought the data could be “extremely valuable” but said he wasn’t sure where he stood.
“I know you’re not connecting names with IDs, but quite frankly, I have concerns,” Nichols said. “It’s not so much that it’s an outright ‘no,’ from me, but it’s just a pause. I’d like to see it tried and tested and validated that it is not an invasion of privacy, and that would be my only concern. I like—I really like—the possibilities.”
While their opinions varied, the council members agreed to gather input from residents in a public hearing before coming to a conclusion about Blyncsy. The public hearing was scheduled for July 13, but it was moved to July 27 before being moved to Aug. 10, pending a motion. No motion was made to hold a public hearing on the matter on August 10, so the discussion of a contract with Blyncsy is unlikely to continue.
Resident JayLynn Thomas said she thought city leaders kept deferring the public hearing so people would forget about the issue, but City Clerk Melanie Briggs said they moved the first public hearing to give the city attorney’s office more time to scour through Blyncsy’s proposed contract.
The West Jordan Journal requested a copy of the contract to inform residents of the specific terms of the potential agreement, but the Office of Government Records declined the request on Blyncsy’s claim of Business Confidentiality, noting that they would not disclose “Information on the methods, services, costs and technology of the company, including how it is used by the government, who has access to it and the method by which it is maintained, installed and utilized.” To give out this information would expose “trade secrets” of the “cutting edge technology,” the denial stated.
Opinions of West Jordan Residents
West Jordan resident Kim Ratcliffe said he was aware of the potential agreement between Blyncsy and the city but became “100 percent” against the contract once he found out it couldn’t be shared with the public.
“There’s enough tracking as it is,” Ratcliffe said. “Cell carriers are already tracking, and apps can see everything you do on your phone. We don’t need any more people tracking us, and there shouldn’t be government intrusion at all.”
Kai Hintze, another West Jordan resident, said he believes people have a right to not be followed, whether that’s by other drivers on the road or by Blyncsy. Most of his neighbors would be “horrified” by the breech of privacy the system would cause if the city chose to accept the three-month trial, he said.
Thomas said she’s concerned about the safety of her children who have smartphones and other electronic devices which connect to WiFi. She said she’d hate to have their private information hacked. Blyncsy only claims to track the location, but she said she believes it’s only a matter of time before they start using their technology to trace other things.
“How easy would it be for a rogue employee to get information not supposed to? Most of us are doing banking on our phones, and there’s too much there,” Ratcliffe said. “If we open the door for a traffic study, we are opening the door for them to track other things, and we need to keep the door shut entirely.”
Blyncsy’s Security and Accuracy Precautions
Pittman said he understands resident concerns, given the new nature of the technology, but he said that his company has thought through their processes and delivers results without invading privacy. The only thing Blyncsy monitors is location, he said.
Blyncsy IDs, converted from MAC addresses, are 64 characters of letters, numbers and symbols, and are not tagged to people, making it impossible to identify a person by their device, Pittman said.
“There’s something crazy, like 3,300 trillion amounts of combinations, so it would take even a supercomputer a number of years to cipher even one line (of a Blyncsy ID), and that line wouldn’t help them to decipher the rest,” he said. “There’s no way for someone in the company to find out who you are. There is no ‘uber God mode’ that we can go into.”
Pittman considers Blyncsy one of the safest big data companies available. Legislators passed Pittman’s Data Privacy Best Practices Act almost unanimously at the last legislative session which prohibits government to use Blyncsy data to prosecute a crime and protects location-data privacy of consumers.
“We’ve passed legislation to ensure that your privacy is protected,” Pittman said. “We have taken all of the technological steps to ensure that your privacy is protected. We’ve done everything that we possibly can at this point. If you’re still concerned about it, then opt out, but before you do that, maybe consider your Gmail account, and your iPhone because they know your underwear size; they know the crayon colors that you like and everything else about you.
“Compared to any other tech company in the world, we know so little about you that it is insane.”
Thomas said Blyncsy is different than other companies because, should the city choose to move forward with the trail, she would automatically be “opted in” to Blyncsy’s services.
“People say Google tracks you, but the difference is that I invited them into my life,” Thomas said. “I am not inviting Blyncsy into my life. You can say what you want about it, that it is just tracking traffic, but the data is not worth anything to me.”
Thomas said he believes the traffic study couldn’t gain accurate data because people may choose to turn their Wi-Fi or Bluetooth off or have phones that don’t connect to the internet. Hintze said that there are times when he is carrying two cell phones—his own and his wife’s—while driving in the car with his tablet and laptop. Although he’s only one car on the road, Hintze said he fears that the sensors would pick up eight signals, four from Wi-Fi and four from Bluetooth, and think there is eight times more traffic on the road than there is in actuality.
Pittman said Blyncsy compensates for these issues in two ways. The programming picks up on “Blyncsy groups,” groups of devices that usually travel together, which it takes into account when monitoring traffic. The company also hires college students across the country to stand at the sensors and count the number of cars, pedestrians and bicyclist that pass by. They use this data to statistically convert the number of Blyncsy IDs to the appropriate number of cars on the road at a given time.
Park City’s Experience with Blyncsy
Despite the outcry from West Jordan residents, Blyncsy’s technology has proven to be helpful to Park City. After a year of utilizing 25 sensors, city officials installed 30 to 35 more sensors this summer. The sensors gave city staff insight about visitors during the Sundance Film Festival. In the past, the only way to measure the people who came to the festival was by their ticket sales, but last year they used Blyncsy, Pittman said.
Blyncsy put sensors up in the Salt Lake Airport, and it tracked which devices made it to Park City during the festival. There were sensors at each festival event, which could track the number of recurring devices to the number of new devices to find out how many people actually attended the events, Pittman said.
“Next year, when UDOT is working with Summit County and Park City to identify what the road demands are going to be—we can tell you what it is going to be in Sundance,” Pittman said. “We know your worst times—your best times. Our technology can help traffic engineers know when they need to change traffic lights—myriad things.”
Park City’s used the sensors to track tourists at ski resorts. They know when to open more parking because of the information from Blyncsy’s sensors, said Alfred Knott, transportation planning manager for Park City.
“We saw the value when we could put them close to the ski resorts and have a better way to manage the trail systems,” Knott said. “We have areas we assume that need more parking or trail maintenance, but we’d rather have Blyncsy manage our trailhead facilities than out guys out there with a clipboard counting cards and lockers.”
Park City’s “progressive” city council and residents weren’t too worried about privacy issues to begin with, Knott said, and they haven’t seen any problems since the sensor installation, he added.
“Blyncsy has been really open with us,” Knott said. “You know, it’s been a partnership. It took them awhile to interpret the data, being a start-up company, but within about a month we started seeing results.”
Knott said he sees potential for Blyncsy outside of his jurisdiction, adding that he’d like to see businesses in Park City and neighboring cities jump on board with Blyncsy, so they can begin sharing data.
Five other cities in the nation have contracts with Blyncsy, including Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho, and Farmington signed a trial contract with Blyncsy this summer. Pittman said he expects to have sensors across the Wasatch Front within 12 months, but with the dismissal of West Jordan’s public hearing about the study, it’s not likely that West Jordan will adopt his technology anytime soon.