Without privacy protections, you’ll be giving more than money to tolls
Published 3:05 pm, Thursday, May 3, 2018
Picture your daily commute. Now imagine making that drive 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 also sees that information and can 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 Connecticut lawmakers don’t act soon, this could be reality in our state.
With just two weeks left in Connecticut’s legislative session, there are still four active bills — H.B. 5046, H.B. 5391, H.B. 5393, and S.B. 389 — that could bring tolls to Connecticut highways.
None includes meaningful protections for drivers’ privacy rights.
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 does not 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. 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 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.
Connecticut still has time to protect drivers from being searched without reason by the government whenever they travel under a toll gantry.
Before moving any closer toward tolls, the Legislature must amend whichever toll bill it decides to pursue with strong, clear rules to protect people’s privacy rights.
The Legislature should amend its toll bill to ban the state from selling people’s toll information. It should require law enforcement to get a warrant to access toll information, except in limited emergency situations like Amber Alerts. In those emergencies, the state should require law enforcement to swear under oath that they believe a crime is being committed before handing over access to real-time toll data. And the Legislature should require the state to be transparent about what it does with people’s toll information. If law enforcement gets a warrant requesting someone’s toll information, the state should protect that person’s due process rights by notifying them before releasing their data.
Connecticut shouldn’t bargain away people’s privacy rights for toll revenue.
David McGuire is the executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to protecting and advancing civil rights and civil liberties under the U.S. and Connecticut constitutions.