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Sakonnet bridge toll collection raises privacy concerns

By   /   October 4, 2012  /   Be the first to comment

Tom Killin Dalglish

David Darlington, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority outside his office at the Newport Bridge toll booths.

SAKONNET AREA — If tolls come to the Sakonnet River Bridge next summer, toll collecting devices and surveillance videos will gather personally identifying information about all motorists who cross the span.

Three technologies — E-Z Pass transponders, video-based automatic license-plate readers, and closed circuit television (CCTV), all of which are now in place at the toll station at the west end of the Newport Bridge — are  part of a revolution in toll-taking that has occurred in recent years.

All three are planned for use in collecting tolls on the Sakonnet Bridge. The bridge will be “all electronic,” said David A. Darlington, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA).

Devices will mounted overhead on an arbor or gantry. There will be no option to pay cash, and no toll plaza.

“If you don’t have an E-Z pass, you’ll drive through and an image of your vehicle will be captured and you’ll be billed in the mail.” The image will be created photographically and be capable of being read by license plate reading technology, and a bill will go to the registered owner in whose name the license plate was issued, not necessarily to the driver.

RITBA will not itself run the bridge’s toll system. Instead, it will bid out a third-party contract to what is called a “tolling contractor” to operate the bridge’s system. Such contracts normally run for five to ten years, Mr. Darlington said.

Sakonnet Bridge data: amount, types

Mr. Darlington estimated that the Sakonnet Bridge will have 15 million “transits” annually, half-again as many (10 million) as now cross the Newport Bridge each year, where all three systems are currently up, running, and gathering information. A “transit” is an individual trip by a motorist either way across the bridge, he said.

The amount of potentially identifiable personal data the Sakonnet Bridge could generate each year is staggering. Each transit by a motorist could result in a record created by an E-Z pass transponder, if the motorist has one. In addition, whether or not the motorist has a transponder, a license plate reading system will create a digital image record. An additional record of the vehicle is created by a video surveillance camera.

E-Z pass transponder application forms from RITBA ask applicants to provide their name, address, phone numbers (day and evening), vehicle(s) make year and model, license plate number(s), and up to two credit card numbers, among other data.

License plates connect to huge amounts of data held by state motor vehicle licensing departments, law enforcement and other agencies, and insurance carriers.

Privacy worries

The vast amounts and types of information thus gathered, most of it by private “tolling contractors,” has privacy advocates concerned.

NorthJersey.com reported recently that the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed public records requests to 21 police departments in the state, and more nationally, to learn how license plate readers are being used. Among the uses NorthJersey.com reports, are alerts generated by plates relating to a wanted suspect, a stolen vehicle, and data sought to check an alibi.

In one incident, NorthJersey.com reports, police identified cars leaving a shoplifting scene, called car owners, and found one mother who said her daughter had borrowed her car, and had just acquired a new pair of UGG boots. The daughter ended up being charged.

Other potential uses of license-plate reading systems abound: speed control, insurance claims, parking enforcement, tax delinquency, outstanding warrants, divorce cases, automobile repossessions, and marketing studies by tourist destinations.

RITBA experience to date

Until 2009, Mr. Darlington said, RITBA’s toll collection system was strictly “a token and cash only operation.”

In September 2009, the E-Z Pass system was instituted at the  Newport Bridge, he said. Transponders (radio frequency identification devices) mounted in or on vehicles transmit unique identifiers to toll stations as drivers pass through, and trigger charges against a pre-paid account the transponder holder has created.

The E-Z pass system is in use by about 24 toll agencies in 14 states, including Rhode Island. The E-Z Pass Group, a user network to which states and toll authorities like RITBA belong, says more than 22 million transponders are in use.

Another toll-taking innovation — optical character recognition — was recently adopted by RITBA at the Newport Bridge just last June 22, when it began using license plate reading technology, which captures images of the license plate and the back end of each vehicle. By tracing the license plate to the registered owner of the vehicle, RITBA is able to bill the registered owner for the toll, or violation.

Augmenting these technologies is the ubiquitous CCTV system, which uses surveillance cameras to beam video images of all vehicles passing through the toll booths to monitors in the new RITBA headquarters adjacent to the Newport Bridge toll booths. CCTVs have been in place a little over 12 years, Mr. Darlington said.

Protection of privacy

Only E-Z pass data collected from transponders by RITBA is protected by state statute from release, which allows disclosure to law enforcement agencies for toll enforcement purposes or by court order.

The General Assembly has not enacted legislation protecting data collected by license-plate-reading technology  by RITBA or by its toll contractors from release. Nor is there a state statute limiting the release of toll booth video images captured by surveillance cameras.

For the last 12 years, the authority has been getting occasional requests to view CCTV video clips.

Since E-Z pass was instituted in the state in 2009, Mr. Darlington said, the authority has received about a dozen police requests for transponder-generated information. Consistent with what it says is its current policy, it has required a court authorization each time. An attorney wanted data for a divorce case in late 2009 or early 2010, “and we didn’t provide it,” he said.

Mr. Darlington said RITBA will act at its board meeting this Wednesday, Oct. 10, to consider a four-and-a-quarter page written policy to formalize in writing what he said has been its current unwritten policy limiting release of toll-generated data.

“As a result of your inquiry and us looking at this, we’re going to write up our policy and have our board codify it into our policies,” he said.

The new policy would mean that both transponder or license-read data identifying motorists will, in general, not be released by RITBA to anyone except the motorist or unless authorized by a court. Current policy is similar but unwritten.

RITBA has no policy to date stating how long it will keep the data, though it says it is developing one. It keeps CCTV video data for 60 days, it says, or at least as long as needed to resolve billing inquiries, said Mr. Darlington.

Tiverton Rep. John Edwards (D – Dist. 70), has said he plans to introduce and support legislation protecting toll-generated data, by whatever means collected, including by license-plate-reading technology, from disclosure for other than toll collection except by court authorization. “This information has to be held very tightly,” he said. “The toll bridge authority could change, and there needs to be something in the law that gives them no option but to follow a protective policy.”

Mr. Darlington said RITBA “wouldn’t oppose legislation but we aren’t seeking it.”

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