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    Ars Technica: Privacy, congestion tracking, and the future

    Ars Technica takes a look at privacy questions surrounding the use of congestion-identificaiton technology, which also can be used to track individual vehicles:

    Recently they’ve begun experimenting with a new strategy for controlling congestion: demand-based pricing of scarce road capacity. […] New technologies—notably RFID transponders and license-plate-reading cameras—are allowing the replacement of traditional tollbooths with cashless tolling at freeway speeds. […]

    Such schemes might abolish traffic jams once and for all, but they also have significant downsides. Ubiquitous tolling requires ubiquitous surveillance, which raises obvious civil liberties concerns. […]

    In this article we’ll consider whether congestion pricing can cure what ails the American transportation system. The economic arguments are compelling, and the current generation of tolled express lanes have produced real benefits. But we remain skeptical that the economic advantages of more ambitious tolling regimes are large enough to justify the potential costs in individual liberty.

    At a minimum, there needs to be much stronger legal and technological safeguards to ensure that infrastructure built to catch people evading tolls isn’t used as a general-purpose system for governments to monitor and control motorists’ every move. […]

    Perhaps the most ambitious congestion tolling scheme was described to us by Brookings’s Robert Puentes. He pointed to a 2009 government report called “Paying Our Way” that proposes a “comprehensive” tolling model. In this model, every car carries a black box that records the vehicle’s movements via GPS and keeps a running tally of how much the driver owes. Such a system would offer unprecedented flexibility in the tolls that could be collected. Tolls could be collected on every public road and rates could be changed in real time. The United Kingdom has conducted field trials with similar technology. […]

    The black box would need to communicate with the tolling authority at regular intervals to report how much money its owner owed. There’s an inherent tension between the auditability and privacy: sharing more information facilitates the former but undermines the latter.

    Indeed, all of the tolling systems we’ve described so far raise significant privacy issues. In London, a system constructed for antiterrorism surveillance turned out to be useful for toll enforcement. The process could easily work the other way around: information initially collected for toll enforcement being retained and used for unrelated, and possibly nefarious, surveillance purposes.

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