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Massachusetts Automated Toll Systems Raise Privacy Concerns

The Massachusetts Turnpike is one of the latest roads to begin to feature all-automated toll collection systems, which cause privacy concerns due to the resulting databases of license plate photographs.

All-automated toll collection systems allow drivers to go through toll stations without handing over cash or slowing down to activate an E-ZPass. The tolls would be billed to the address where the car is registered.

The collection systems snap a picture of the license plates and in some cases, use the photos to scan a “hot list” to flag and track certain vehicles. The feature could be used in public safety emergencies, including Amber Alerts.

Privacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union complained that this data will allow law enforcement to track the movements of innocent travelers. The ACLU asked what data will be collected and stored, how long the data will be kept, and what situations would trigger a hot list search.

The ACLU agrees with the idea of a hot list, but doesn’t agree when the data of every vehicle’s movement is kept for excessive amounts of time in databases.

“Increasingly, all of this data is being fed into massive databases that contain the location information of many millions of innocent Americans stretching back for months or even years,” Catherine Crump, staff attorney for ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, wrote in a blog post. “We don’t object when they’re used to identify people who are driving stolen cars or are subject to an arrest warrant. But they should not become tools for tracking where each of us has driven.”

License plate readers take pictures of every passing car and have low rates of finding the vehicle they’re looking for, according to the ACLU. In Burbank, Ill., over the course of a year, 706,918 photos of license plates were stored and law enforcement found a vehicle it was looking for fewer than three times. Similarly, in High Point, N.C., 70,289 photos were stored in the span of 11 months and about one vehicle was located.

“Trips to places of worship, political protests, or gun ranges can be powerful indicators of people’s beliefs,” Crump wrote. “If the government comes to suspect you of something in 2020, should it have access to databases stretching back years that could dig up facts about you that previously went unnoticed?”

Policies on license plate tracking data can span from storing photos for a couple of days to storing them indefinitely, depending on the location. The Minnesota State Patrol keeps data for 48 hours, whereas Grapevine, Texas, keeps data for as long as they see fit.

“The data can be abused for official purposes, like spying on protesters merely because they are exercising their constitutionally protected right to petition the government, or unofficial ones, like tracking an ex-spouse,” Crump said, citing an ACLU report.

The ACLU believes that license plate tracking should be used to find vehicles on hot lists, which can be done instantaneously. Plates that receive a hit can be stored in order to be further investigated and plates that don’t should be discarded within days or weeks.

Massachusetts state officials said the data from the turnpike will be kept as long as it takes for the bill to be paid, which could take more than a year because car registration depends on payment of tolls.

However, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation highlights the benefits, saying that the removal of toll booths will decrease traffic and increase safety.

The cameras, which will be attached to 16 gantries, will assess tolls on cars that don’t have E-ZPass technologies. The conversion to all-automated tolls will be completed by Oct. 28.

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