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Motorways: Mobile Phone and GPS Signals

Volume 717: debated on Thursday 4 February 2010


Asked By

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what use his department or its agencies is making or intends to make of mobile phone and GPS signals for motorway modelling purposes.

My Lords, the department has for several years used in-vehicle GPS data to produce interurban congestion public service agreement statistics. Anonymised Trafficmaster data are used to estimate average journey times between motorway junctions.

Mobile phone data are not currently used by the department, and I would not agree to using traceable personal data that raised genuine privacy concerns

What is the relationship between ITIS Holdings and the Department for Transport? Has the department made an assessment of whether safeguards are needed to deal with the privacy implications of the use of mobile phones, which the department says it is not using, but which ITIS is certainly using, to model traffic?

My Lords, the department has engaged ITIS as a contractor in the past, but I can give the noble Baroness a categoric assurance that the department currently makes no use whatever of mobile phone data for tracking vehicle movements.

Does the Secretary of State not think that people who have mobile phones should be made aware that their mobile phones have been used to track journeys, the nature of journeys, the number of people in the car and so on?

My Lords, something is clearly being done by the highway authorities with mobile and GPS signals to map out traffic. Can the Minister give us some suggestion, some clue, about what that information will be used for or is being used for because it must be being done under the eye of the Government?

My Lords, in respect of the GPS data, Trafficmaster has 70,000 vehicles with in-vehicle GPS units installed. That helps to generate data on congestion levels and journey times that are of immense value to the public at large, so I make no apology for the use of the GPS data. GPS signals are also used in tracking buses and enable the public to get real-time information on bus delays and availability, as well as other services that are available by means of GPS.

The Secretary of State has very kindly informed us that the department does not use tracking through the mobile phone system. Can he give the same assurance about any contractor which the department uses?

I am not aware that any contractor used by the department makes use of any such data either, but I will certainly confirm that to the noble Lord.

Does my noble friend believe that GPS is being used to its maximum for the benefit of the country? Will he look at the cost of taxis in central London, particularly with the Olympics in mind, and see whether we should not think about changing the way in which our black cab system runs in London? We should be using GPS more rather than the current extensive training scheme that is reflected in very high charges later.

I am sure that over time we can make better and wider use of GPS. We are doing so, for example, in the bus fleet. From April this year, operators of local bus services in England will receive a 2 per cent increase in their bus subsidy rate if they have fitted their buses with automatic vehicle location equipment, such as GPS equipment. This makes tracking the buses much more straightforward, and much better information can be given to travellers.

The Secretary of State has told my noble friend that he will inquire whether any contractors use GPS signals in ways which his department and many of us regard as inappropriate. If he finds that they are doing so, does he have the power to stop them, and will he use it?

If the contractors are used by the department, I am sure that I will have that power one way or another.

I ask the Secretary of State the same question again in the hope of getting an answer. Should not people who have mobile phones be made aware that their mobile phones are being used by some people for tracking purposes to provide data of this kind?

My Lords, all the data that companies use and relay to third parties are in a fully anonymised form. I am not aware of concerns in this area that need to be met, but I am happy to look at the issue further.

Is the Secretary of State aware that many of us do not agree with the suggestion that black cabs should stop acquiring “the knowledge”? I would be very sorry to see us change over to sat-nav or to the Australian system in which the man gets out a map and starts looking at where you want to go.