Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"Toll systems yield a gold mine of information to government agents and lawyers for a wide range of purposes."

The real toll is your privacy

'Cruise' cards' information can be used by others

Toll road networks that use a stored-value card can keep track of where you were when, and even how fast you were driving. While some states release such records only in criminal cases, others don't have limitations.


Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Copyright 2007

Motorists speeding past the collection booths on Ga. 400, our state's only toll road, might think the worst consequence that could befall them would be a ticket for failure to pay a toll if they don't have a "Cruise Card" or have allowed it to expire.

In fact, Ga. 400 scofflaws, as well as all those millions who pay their tolls and pass lawfully through its booths, have much more to be concerned about, at least potentially.

As many states are discovering, toll systems yield a gold mine of information. Not only government agents, but lawyers as well are accessing toll records for a wide range of purposes.

Most people devote no thought whatsoever to a toll, other than that they've paid a fee and are on their way with a minimum of time spent negotiating the booth. If they have a Ga. 400 Cruise Card, or whatever such electronic device is called in other states that enable drivers to speed by the booth without stopping, they likely worry not a nanosecond about what happens to the record of their traversing the toll booth. In fact, they probably are blissfully ignorant that there even are such records. The fact is, every time a motorist passes through a toll booth, a record of that travel is created.

In those states, like Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with toll road networks in which motorists are charged escalating fees based on distance traveled, the electronic databases thus created include a great deal more information than simply which vehicles pass through the toll booths at a particular date and time. For example, in the 12 states in the Northeast and Midwest that are part of a regional turnpike authority, if the traveler uses what is termed an "E-Z Pass," the state highway authorities have a far more robust record of the motorists' driving histories. The governments in those states would have a record of the dates and times the motorist entered and exited the toll road, as well as the speed at which they drove (easily calculated based on distance traveled and entry and exit times).

In the absence of legal restrictions on how long toll road information can be retained - indeed, whether it even should be retained — exactly what information can be retained, and who can access the information and for what purpose, every motorist using toll road cruise cards is surrendering a much greater amount of information on their travel patterns than they might wish if they actually thought about it or were aware of what is done with that data. The volume of information collected through these toll systems is staggering. The 12-state E-Z Pass network, for example, generates more than two billion charges per year, and that number is growing fast.

While a handful of states — New Jersey and Pennsylvania among them — release toll records only in criminal cases, many more do not place restrictions on access to such information. For divorce lawyers and other attorneys, being able to use a government-generated record such as an E-Z Pass record to help establish where and when a person was located, can be extremely persuasive. Of course, the government itself — always eager to make the jobs of its regulators, investigators and prosecutors easier — is the most frequent end user of toll road data.

Systems like E-Z Pass or Georgia's far smaller Cruise Card are notable examples of the growing use of technology known as Radio Frequency Identification Chips, or "RFID." RFID devices either actively transmit a signal to a receiving unit or passively contain data read when it passes in proximity to a reader. RFID chips now in U.S. passports are an example of the latter. Privacy and security concerns with either active or passive devices are of sufficient gravity that all users ought to educate themselves about the amount and type of information they are surrendering. Especially here in Georgia where privacy-protective laws are small in number and weak in application, citizens should demand that the General Assembly and the governor support clear and meaningful laws limiting the degree to which data generated by electronic devices can be maintained and accessed.

More than a decade ago, the Congress created the National Instant Check System to determine if a consumer possessed any of the characteristics, such as a criminal record, that would prohibit them from purchasing a firearm. Wisely, the Congress incorporated in the legislation very strict limits on the amount of data that could be thus maintained, for how long and who could access it. Our state governments should follow this example before we traverse so far down this highway that there is no return.

• Former congressman and U.S. attorney Bob Barr practices law in Atlanta. Web site:

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