Mar 272013

I was interviewed yesterday about my concerns for the new Golden Gate Bridge toll system. Like an increasing number of other roadways, as of this morning the bridge will have gone to all-electronic tolling and done away with its human toll-takers, ostensibly as a cost-cutting move. But while it may save the Bridge District some money on salaries, at what cost does it do so to the public?

With the toll-takers bridge users could pay cash, anonymously, whenever they wanted to use the bridge. Fastrak, the previous electronic toll system, has also been an option for the past several years, offering a discount to bridge users who didn’t mind having their travel information collected, stored, and potentially accessed by others in exchange for some potential expediency. But now bridge users will either have to use Fastrak, or agree to have their license plates photographed (and thereby have their travel information collected, stored, and potentially accessed by others) and then compared to DMV records in order to then be invoiced for their travels.

As an aside, there are plenty of valid logistical concerns about this new system. Even for locals the options for paying are myriad and confusing, and the change-over has happened on such a rapid timeline that the public may not have realized that this rather drastic change to the toll system is in fact upon them. Furthermore, the Golden Gate Bridge draws countless tourists, including many from other countries, and while the privacy implications may be smaller for people making one-off trips across the bridge, the administrative hassles of paying for them may in effect impose an extra tax on these tourists. There’s also the question of what happens if people don’t pay the tolls: for in-state drivers the DMV can freeze their auto registrations, but for out-of-state drivers the only leverage will be to send them to collections, a “solution” which raises significant due process concerns as well as increased enforcement costs for the Bridge District.

But the biggest problem with the change is its privacy implications. With the change the only convenient way to use the bridge now is to set up an account, either with a Fastrak transponder or by association with a license plate, that is connected to a credit card. But either arrangement means the Bridge District, a state actor, or the Fastrak administration, another state actor that is in charge of all the electronic toll collections, will be able to develop a detailed inventory of bridge crossings associated to identifiable travelers. Moreover, per the privacy policy, this data can be retained for up to 4.5 years after the billing cycle has completed and the balance finally satisfied. As I told the reporter today, there are plenty of Law & Order episodes where the cops used EZPass (New York’s Fastrak equivalent) records to figure out whom they wanted to drag down to the police station. That real life California cops might do the same is hardly a fanciful fear.

Thankfully it does appear that there is a way to avoid having one’s travels collected in this database, but it’s an extremely cumbersome and inconvenient alternative. One must go to the Fastrak Customer Service Center, of which there is only one (in San Francisco, on The Embarcadero at Broadway), and buy a Fastrak transponder with a $20 deposit and $50 pre-load minimum. When the balance drops (which, at $5 per toll, will happen quickly) people can then add more cash to top off their accounts, but the locations for doing so are few and far between and not particularly well-identified anywhere on the Bridge District website.

Will people avail themselves of this option? Perhaps. Arguably everyone should, but it simply may be too much of a burden to have to make such large cash outlays as well as have to frequently run a separate and distinct errand in order to continue to pay cash anonymously. Thus for all intents and purposes, there is no real alternative to having one’s travels tracked, and all the privacy risks such tracking represents remain present, potent, and unmitigated. As I told the reporter, if cash-less tolling is the way of the future we will need to have a long conversation about what that means for the privacy rights of drivers. Right now they are being compromised just so the toll authorities can (arguably) save a buck, and that’s a bad bargain the public should not be forced to pay for.

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