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paybyphone21Parking in Seattle became a little more convenient earlier this month with the debut of PayByPhone, a smartphone app that allows people to fill the meter without visiting their car or displaying a stub.

But the technology’s arrival also raises a few questions, particularly in regard to the data — vehicle license plate(s), cell phone number and credit card payment information — you are now providing to PayByPhone.

How will the data be used? Who can access it? Can it be used against you in a dispute?

The short answer is that city parking enforcement officers using PayByPhone’s system can primarily see license plate and account numbers. Anything beyond that is only used for specific user complaints or enforcement issues.

In Seattle, select employees from Seattle Department of Transportation and the Seattle Police Parking Enforcement have limited access to the PayByPhone external web-based system to address specific user complaints or enforcement issues.

“Parking Enforcement can check a transaction record to address user questions or to provide the Seattle Municipal Court with appropriate documentation,” said SDOT’s Rick Sheridan. “On their enforcement patrols, Parking Enforcement Officers see the vehicle license plate, the block address and the expiration time for each vehicle that paid by phone during their enforcement search.”

Kieran Coffey, a marketing coordinator with PayByPhone, told us that the system does not notify an officer when a specific vehicle’s session is expiring. So, hypothetically, an officer can’t see a list of every single PayByPhone meter information from the app. However, Coffey noted that the technology is available through street sensor companies like Streetline and IPSens.

A parking meter maid on an enforcement patrol. Image via KING 5.
A parking meter maid on an enforcement patrol. Image via KING 5.

Other cities who have already implemented PayByPhone seem to be using customer data only in special circumstances. Adam Jones, Deputy Director at Downtown Tempe Community Inc., said “absolutely not,” when asked if his team uses PayByPhone customer data.

“We can only access payment time/amount by the last 4 digits of a credit card in case of customer inquiries,” he said.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency also said it does not use PayByPhone data.

“It is simply a payment tool,” said SFMTA media relations manager Paul Rose. “We use data through SFPark and our parking census data to track trends.”

But what about using the parking data to help law enforcement in special circumstances? For example, in Toronto, the city uses its cell phone parking system to check whether cars are properly insured or stolen.

Though PayByPhone states in Section 2.5 of its privacy policy that it can use personal information without consent when it is “permitted or required by law,” or “in an emergency that threatens an individual’s life, health, or personal security,” Coffey said it hasn’t happened yet.

paybyphone11“We have not encountered situations where law enforcement has requested to use information from us to pursue a case,” Coffey said. “That said, LPR (license plate recognition) solutions mounted on patrol vehicles are already in use by police departments around the country. PayByPhone could potentially feed license plate and location data into a law enforcement system if requested by a legal process (such as a court order) which we believe requires our compliance.”

Seattle does not plan on suppling PayByPhone information to law enforcement instances, either.

“The PayByPhone system is a parking payment process and as such, does not provide a straightforward way to track vehicles in real-time parked in the public right-of-way,” SDOT’s Sheridan said.

When you’re ready to park with PayByPhone, you just enter in the provided location number and duration of time that you’d like to park for.

However, PayByPhone does use your info to provide offers and promotions from time to time. For example, they notify customers in Miami about a free gas card giveaway, or send users in Vancouver a text message when they cross a bridge letting them know of a service that makes it easy to pay their bridge tolls.

Coffey added that the next version of PayByPhone will include capability to send push messages to users who have opted-in based on their location or where they park.

At the Tempe, San Francisco and Redwood City parking offices, all representatives we spoke with had good things to say about PayByPhone and the convenience it adds. In Tempe, the service has had “very little impact on revenue,” as the city already accepted credit cards at most of its high volume locations.

“The intended purpose of the program was to enhance the customer service experience of the downtown visitor,” Jones said.

But over in San Francisco, PayByPhone and other similar programs that make it easier to pay for parking have both increased efficiency for the customer and the dollars coming in for the city.

“In recent years, we’ve issued less citations, but have seen more revenue come from meter payment,” Rose said. “This balanced result is exactly what we want to see.”

Though PayByPhone told the City of Seattle that a typical outcome is for cities deploying this feature is higher parking revenue, Sheridan said that given the city’s lack of Seattle specific data, it is not predicting such.

“Our goal in incorporating payment by phone was to enhance customer convenience when parking,” he said.

Each transaction on PayByPhone in Seattle will incur a $0.35 charge, but PayByPhone charges cities up to $0.45. The app is available for iOSAndroid and BlackBerry, but don’t worry, Windows Phone owners — you can still use the service via PayByPhone’s mobile site.

In Seattle, the new service will start between First Avenue, Seneca Street, Ninth Avenue and Stewart Street, eventually expanding to all of Seattle by the end of 2013. This was supposed to be implemented last fall, but more testing was needed for integration with the Seattle Police Department equipment.

Previously on GeekWire: App of the Week: BestParking is a key tool for urban parkers … A place to poo: Seattle may install a $90,000 public toilet downtown

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