October 27, 2003

Remote Controls for Traffic Lights

Many cities have installed systems that let emergency vehicles control traffic lights via infrared remote controls, thereby getting to the scene of an emergency more quickly. This is good. Yesterday's Detroit News reports on the availability of remote controls that allow ordinary citizens to control the same traffic lights. Now traffic engineers worry that selfish people will use the remotes to disrupt the flow of traffic. This could have been avoided by using cryptography in the design of the original system. Instead, we're likely to see a crackdown on the distribution of the remote controls, and the predictable black market in the banned devices. This seems like a classic example of the harm caused by deploying a technology without considering how it might be abused. It would be interesting to know why this happened. Did the vendor not stop to think about the potential for abuse? Did they think that nobody would ever figure out how to abuse the system? Did they fail to realize that anti-abuse methods were available? I wish I knew. [Link credit: Eric Rescorla] Posted by Ed Felten at October 27, 2003 09:38 AM