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Traffic moves along West Georgia Street in downtown Vancouver June 4, 2008. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)
Traffic moves along West Georgia Street in downtown Vancouver June 4, 2008. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)

Metro Vancouver project monitors private cellphones to track traffic jams Add to ...

Someone else’s cellphone could be helping you avoid a traffic jam.

B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, Transport Canada and TransLink, which runs the Vancouver region’s transit system, unveiled an online map on Wednesday that displays real-time, colour-coded traffic information using data collected from cellphone signals.

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The information on the map is created by collecting anonymous GPS data from cellphone users who are driving on the region’s highways and major roads to determine the general speed of movement along each route.

Roads and highways on the map, which is updated constantly, are coloured red for very slow movement, yellow to signal congestion and green if travel is trouble-free. TransLink and DriveBC, the provincial government’s traffic service, have both posted the map on their websites and are encouraging travellers to use the map for pre-trip planning.

Similar technology is used by Google Maps, which tracks GPS-enabled cellphones as part of its “Live Traffic” feature. Google’s system allows it to measure the speed of phones as they travel around the city, combining data from thousands of phones across the network to create a representation of traffic conditions. Apple uses similar technology for its mapping service.

Privacy advocates raised concerns Wednesday about the cellphone-based technology used in the new map, as well as by companies such as Google and Apple, saying the public needs more assurances that personal information isn’t being collected.

TransLink insisted that any personal data from cellphones is removed before the information is pushed to the map.

But the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said TransLink’s assurance is vague and doesn’t adequately address privacy concerns.

“It’s simply insufficient to say ... that any personal date from cellphones is removed before it is used in the map system,” the association’s policy director, Micheal Vonn, said in an interview.

“That’s still collection of personal data.”

Vonn said more information needs to be released about the mapping technology, including whether privacy impact assessments have been conducted at both the provincial and federal levels.

“I don’t know what kind of technology is being used here,” she said, but this “is the kind of use of new technologies that clearly requires the guidance of the privacy commissioners.”

The provincial government referred questions to TransLink. Neither TransLink nor Transport Canada responded to requests for comment.

Data from the project will be saved and used to help plan further highway upgrades in the area covering Highway 1 from Whistler to Chilliwack, Highway 99 from the Peace Arch border crossing to Whistler, and all other numbered highways and major roadways in Metro Vancouver.

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