TomTom admits police used data for speed traps

"We never foresaw this kind of use and many of our clients are not happy about it." -- TomTom navigation device maker CEO Harold Goddijn plays dumb about selling user data to police so they can set up speed traps.


  1. Actually, I totally believe him.

    It’s a novel idea and I congratulate the police to have thought about this.

  2. Data collected from customers includes 1) where they went, 2) which routes they took to get there, 3) at what time they were at any given point on the route.

    I dare say that the use that they “never foresaw” is one of the most obvious. And all other uses (say, how many people go to a particular store branch, or how many people use a given stretch of road) can be determined by other, better, cheaper methods. The only other use I can think of is identifying where maps are clearly out of date by identifying frequently-used routes through seemingly empty fields. I would be surprised if anyone aside from TomTom itself would care about that.

    1. Or city planning. Traffic engineers frequently set up temporary road sensors to gather that kind of information so they can better time signal lights, plan road expansions, etc.

      In a former life as a city laborer I had to install those road sensors from time to time so I can easily imagine how a data mining approach would be quicker, easier, and far more comprehensive. Plus there’s less chance that some poor schmuck in a day-glo vest is gonna get hit by a truck while nailing a pressure-trigger hose into the asphalt.

    2. You’re implying that the police got enough information to infer who did what, but so far I’ve only heard that the police have aggregate information that can’t be traced back to individual devices. Where are you getting this information?
      I don’t mind if the police got a speeding heat map from TomTom.

      1. Not that who did what. Rather, that many people do something (speed) in a particular area, thus making it the logical place to step-up enforcement.

        Also, since this sort of data is usually not cheap, I’d assume that the traditional sensor method to collecting traffic data is cheaper. Deploy equipment you already have once, leave unattended for a week, and let an intern spend a day to export/process the data. Granted, that’s pretty much to prove something you already think is a good idea is worth the effort. If you have a very pro-active local government — somehow… — then I could see them being interested.

        Now that I think of it, someone like Google might also be interested in traffic, frequent delays, etc. when planning routes. Whether TomTom would prefer to leverage that themselves or sell to competitor is an open question.

        1. Also, since this sort of data is usually not cheap, I’d assume that the traditional sensor method to collecting traffic data is cheaper.

          I don’t know how much TomTom charges for their data, but as someone who has deployed those sensors I can tell you that assumption is a big one. Even without factoring in the cost of the equipment it can take several man-hours of effort just to gather traffic data for a single intersection.

  3. Sounds like the beginning of the end of the industry if they’re resorting to selling information collected about their users.

  4. Fortunately, there are many other companies that sell similar GPS devices. I will never buy a TomTom again, and hopefully, other GPS companies will not make the same mistake.

    1. What’s the difference between this and rental car companies using GPR data in their rental fleet to fine customers that go over the speed limit…besides the fact that it’s cops and not a corporation?

      JohnnyOC, that story is over 10 years old. The guy sued the company and won, and the judgement was upheld on appeal. If you have any other evidence of this practice I’d be curious to read it, but as it stands you’re arguing from Snopes territory.

  5. I don’t mind the cops giving tickets to reckless drivers…I DO mind that device manufacturers think they can record information about us and sell it without warning (even if it’s buried in a 25 page EULA).

    1. It’s very probably not buried in an EULA, but like with Navigon has to be enabled by choice, with due information that the data will get sent anonymized to the seller.

    2. I don’t feel violated over the sale of aggregate data, if that data is unlikely to be traceable back to me even with clever algorithms.
      Would you rather your tax dollars be spent on a more expensive way to generate a speeding heat map?

  6. I keep hearing rumors that some GPS units can and will notify police if the device detects you speeding over a certain limit. 70 in a 60, they don’t care….Do a 60 in a school zone and the alert goes out.

    Has anybody else heard anything verifiable about this?

    1. Would the exhortation to “go play in traffic” be appropriate for a GPS-monger?

      As a fearless road cyclist, that’s my definition of fun ; )

  7. The smartest thing would be to see where the most accidents occur and put speed traps there!

  8. Big picture: TomTom data is being used to make roads safer.

    Kudos to TomTom for finding a revenue stream that is also a social good.

    Shame on you speeders for complaining about losing some of your favorite speedways.

    1. Except it’s not- the police already have the data on where traffic accidents happen (as it’s illegal to fail to report an accident in most places). The only extra information thy get here is where people are driving faster than the speed limit but the accident rate is still not going up. What they should be thinking, given this data, is “maybe we could raise the speed limit here” or even “things are going just fine here, no need to put in a speed trap”.

      Instead, they think “ooh, we can put a speed trap here and raise a bunch of cash”.

      Speed limits are not set by divine pronouncement- there are plenty of places where they are too high, and plenty of others where they are too low. Of course, as speed enforcement can be automated and enforcement of dangerous/reckless driving can’t be, the police take the easy option- and catch the guy driving safely but above the limit, while ignoring the drunk/careless/incompetent driver going below the limit until they crash or someone complains.

      1. Where does the information come from that it’s illegal not to report an accident?

        If there’s only one party involved or both parties settle it by themselves, I don’t see why the police should even get involved.

        Also, a speed trap isn’t necessarily about making money, but to make people adhere to the speed limit. That’s why police don’t really mind that much when radio stations tell where the traps are – I raises awareness on where they usually are and makes people be careful at these streets.

        And last, not least, it’s kinda smart to check for dangerous spots *before* a nasty accident happen.

        1. In California, at least, you’re required to report any accident involving injury or damage over a certain dollar amount. That’s the only way that they will ever know that Grandpa has been in 22 accidents in the last six months so that they can revoke his license.

          1. Ah, I see. I thought you guys had regular checkups to weed out physically unfit drivers?

            Thugh I wonder why that’s needed. Over here, senior drivers are one of the least dangerous groups, even according to the insurers who ought to know.

          2. Until you’re 70(?), you can renew online/by mail for at least two five year periods. I haven’t had a driving test since I originally got my license.

  9. Why don’t state police set a program on tollways that if your tollbooth-to-tollbooth time is faster than what the distance would take doing the speed limit+10 you automatically get a ticket? Seems like it would be difficult to appeal without achieving time-travel.

    1. “Why don’t state police set a program on tollways that if your tollbooth-to-tollbooth time is faster than what the distance would take doing the speed limit+10 you automatically get a ticket?” In New Jersey the Parkway Authority promised users not to do that when they announced EZ Pass.

  10. Something is missing in TFA. How is TomTom even collecting these data in the first place? Standalone GPS devices are receive-only, and are not equiped with a transmitter. Unless they are using some OnStar equivalent, there is no way to get this dataset unless they get physical possession of the device, or the owner explicitly gives them access to the tracklogs somehow.

  11. @anon above, it’s pretty obvious… each gps device is signed (a unique network entity), which the service records the location and timestamp. they pass on anonymous data of gps_box_1 got location data at “location A @ time1” and “location B @ time2.” finding average speed is elementary school algebra from there.

    i’d be more likely to agree with this policy if they also used it to increase speed limits. if they track the average speed on a stretch of interstate, and everyone is going +10 of the speed limit and there are very few accidents there, maybe the speed limit is set too low, and should be increased to match modern road surfaces and vehicle capabilities…

    1. No: GPS is satellite-receive only. The way this data collection works is: if 1) you opted in with TomTom to give them your data, 2) your GPS device is either itself capable of mobile/cell transmission or capable of piggybacking on your mobile phone via Bluetooth, and 3) you actually activate said transmission features, then they get your data.

      1. huh… this is good to know. i hadn’t thought of gps satelites as blind repeaters. it makes more sense that way (in hindsight, it’s ridiculous to think that each gps satellite logs each time/space datum point it sends to each device). posting an assumption as fact is ignorant. thank you for informing me without insult :)

        …but i have a tomtom, and so far as i know, i’ve been through all the available options, and there’s no option i know of for opting in/out of something like this. it has no bluetooth nor mobile-piggybacking capabilities. maybe the traffic-info mini-usb plugin sends data back to tomtom, but that’s an add on which (i assume, not owning one) comes with a different EULA, which very may well authorize transmitting your location and speed back to tomtom for calculating trafficjam locations… idfk

        i still stand by raising speed limits to match reasonable average speeds

        1. Your device may simply not be capable to do this. I’ve seen quite a few GPS nav systems that have hardly any storage capability, much less tracking options for generating your own tracks.

          My main experience comes from owning for iOS, which has pretty much the same option: I can turn on anonymous tracking, which is supposed to be used by Navigon to make their stuff better. I turned in on, in the same way I sometimes fill out enquiry forms or the way I’ll let my grocerer or butcher know when their last sale wasn’t of the usual quality.

          As long as they don’t track *me* specifically, I really don’t care what they do with the data – if they earn money with it, it’s because they generated something new from it. It’s like complaining about the sale price of Manhattan.

  12. As somebody who doesn’t drive, I really have to love the sense of entitlement that drivers have when it comes to being able to drive as fast as they want to.

  13. This kind of like complaining about Piracy. Every new technology will have its pros and cons, some that will benefit the little guy (us), some that will benefit the less-than-honorable. While you can criticize TomTom for “playing dumb”, how long do you think this kind of info can be kept from LE overall? We’ll adapt, trust me.

  14. What Tom-Tom should do is to sell the radar trap info back to it’s customers. Then the only people who get ticketed are non Tom-Tom speeders. That’s a pretty elegant business model, IMHO.

    1. Plenty of GPS units, certainly here in the UK, contain the location of fixed speed cameras and will sound an alarm if you approach one above the speed limit. In some places (Switzerland?) that’s illegal, though- not sure about the Netherlands.

  15. I suspect that if the police had gotten this data from Google (assuming Google had chosen to make aggregated anonymous road-speed data from its navigation app available openly via an API), there would be a bit less concern about this.

    I’m not sure whether this means that Google gets a free pass more often than TomTom, or whether this means people are objecting to profiting explicitly from the transfer of that data, or whether it means I’m just wrong about how that would be perceived.

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