This week, Governor Malloy issued an executive order requiring the state Department of Transportation to conduct a $10 million study of electronic tolling on Connecticut roads.
Missing from that executive order? Any mention of people’s privacy rights.
Imagine making your daily commute with Connecticut’s government tracking where and how fast you are going every time you drive through a toll. In this world, the federal government and for-profit corporations can also see that information and use it to pinpoint your location and travel habits. Thousands of detailed scans about your travel habits are kept in a state database, without rules for how the government secures or shares them.
If this study ignores privacy rights, this could be the reality in Connecticut.
Connecticut tolls would likely rely on electronic gantries, not the tollbooths of yesteryear. To collect fees, these gantries scan a transponder attached to someone’s windshield and automatically deduct money from a prepaid account tied to the vehicle’s license plate. If someone doesn’t have a transponder or prepaid account, a camera captures an image of their license plate, and the state mails the vehicle’s owner a bill.
Typically, these electronic tolls depend on automatic license plate readers: computer-controlled cameras that automatically photograph license plates (and sometimes, the rest of a vehicle and its occupants); stamp those images with location, date, and time; and upload those images to a central database. Under this system, Connecticut tolls would capture sensitive information about millions of drivers —things like date and time of travel, GPS location, and vehicle speed— and store it in a central database.
Without protections, electronic tolls could enable the state and anyone the state decides to share toll information with to track someone’s travel habits for no reason, raising serious Fourth Amendment concerns. They could also be used for speed enforcement. Under Connecticut law, police already have to follow warrant and notification rules if they want to gain access to someone’s personal cellphone communications and location data. Toll data can be just as sensitive, and it deserves the same protections.
Unchecked toll surveillance could particularly hurt vulnerable people. This year, Vigilant Solutions, a license plate reader company that has partnered with the Connecticut Capitol Area Police Association, signed an agency-wide contract to provide Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with access to its full database of license plate scans, allowing ICE to track and surveil immigrants based on where they drive. If Connecticut does not restrict how it shares toll information, state tolls could become an on-ramp for the federal government’s deportation machine.
Any study of electronic tolling in Connecticut that doesn’t include serious consideration of people’s privacy rights would be incomplete.
This week, we sent a letter to the state Department of Transportation Commissioner to share our concerns and request a meeting to discuss these issues face to face. The State Bond Commission still has to vote on whether to approve funding for the toll study. And with no deadline for when the Department of Transportation would need to complete its study, this fight is far from over.
We’re here for the long haul to make sure Connecticut doesn't bargain away people’s privacy rights for toll revenue.
An op-ed similar to this blog post appeared earlier this year in the Connecticut Mirror.