The Halifax Daily News
Sunday, January 12, 1997

Big Brother is Watching You

On each landing, opposite the lift shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
-- George Orwell, 1984
by Parker Barss Donham,

Sometime this spring, the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission plans to install equipment that will automatically identify vehicles and bill tolls to individual customer accounts.

A radio transmitter in each toll lane will broadcast a signal 100 times per second. When the radio waves strike a transponder card affixed to a vehicle, they will induce an electrical charge in an imbedded microchip. The chip, in turn, will cause the card to emit a second radio signal encoded with the vehicle's ID.

Sensors will pick up this signal and send the ID code to a computer, which will check to see if it corresponds to a valid account. If so, lights will signal the motorist to proceed, and deduct 60 cents from the customer's account.

To use the system, a motorist will have to set up an account and purchase a transponder card for $30. Although details have yet to be worked out, General Manager Steve Snider hopes to let customers replenish their accounts by cash, cheque, or direct debit of bank accounts or credit cards.

The system has many obvious advantages. It should speed traffic through the tolls, and simplify collection for both motorists and the commission.

It also opens some new possibilities: the commission hopes to have a telephone number a customer can dial and, using a PIN, instruct the computer to fax a print-out of recent trips across the bridges.

But there's the rub. Although the system is intended solely to facilitate collection of tolls, it will, as presently designed, entail electronic surveillance of citizen's comings and goings. The commission will have each subscribing motorist's name, address, and telephone number, and the time, date, direction travelled, and vehicle used for every bridge crossing.

Chris Welner, spokesman for the Department of Transportation and Public Works, said the Highway 104 Corporation plans to install a similar system on the new toll highway in Cumberland County. Welner said department officials hope the two systems will be compatible, so motorists won't have to carry a welter of transponder cards.

Add in the Confederation Bridge, and possible future toll roads in the Valley, South Shore, and Eastern Counties, and it's clear that a central government computer could soon contain a massive database of citizen movements.

Some citizens will find this prospect obnoxious. Others will shrug: I have nothing to hide, so why should I worry. But use of the word ``hide'' implies that there is never a legitimate basis for keeping one's movements private, and that government is a benign force.

I am not imputing motives here. No one is setting out to devise a system of state, electronic surveillance of citizens. But that is an unintended consequence of the system that's now falling, helter skelter, into place.

Interviews with Welner and Snider demonstrate that responsible officials have not thought deeply about this problem. Welner said he didn't know whether department officials had considered the privacy implications of electronic vehicle identification, but agreed, ``It probably is something that should be considered.''

Snider insists that personal data will be secure, and the system will be voluntary. But there will be a financial penalty for paying cash, and Snider acknowledges that the commission hopes motorists will feel powerfully motivated to use the electronic payment method.

How long will personal data be retained? Snider wasn't sure. Would police be given access to the data without a warrant? Snider said the commission would have to consult its lawyer, something it hasn't done. Would motorists be allowed to open anonymous accounts? Hadn't thought of that.

What's clear is that the commission has devoted little thought to designing a system that gathers no unnecessary personal data (like names and phone numbers).

Electronic toll collection is only the first step toward automated highways, or intelligent transportation systems (ITS) as they are known in industry jargon. Because the bridge commission is taking this step first, the system it adopts will likely become standard throughout the province, if not the region.

Privacy policies are a political issue that should not be left in the hands of a bridge commission. The public, and the legislature, need to think these questions through. Now.

Readers with Internet access can read more about the privacy implications of ITS at:

Copyright © 1997 by Parker Barss Donham. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.