Sign up for E-Z Pass, get a free privacy-invading webcam? [Op-Ed]

In the future, that toll transponder in your car could do a lot more than charge your credit card.

It's a common misconception that the "E-Z Pass" automated tollbooth system is used to issue speeding tickets. It could be, and similar systems are used to issue tickets in the United Kingdom, but as of right now the only way to get caught speeding on most tollways is to blow by a cop with your foot to the floor and a phone glued to your ear.

As cash-strapped municipalities become increasingly desperate for revenue, however, it's a fair bet that some of them will start investigating the possibilities of a nearly endless stream of automatically-generated citations.

Keep this in mind as you read the news, reported by MSNBC, that

"Kapsch TrafficCom AG, an Austrian company that just signed a 10-year contract to provide in-car transponders such as the E-Z Pass to 22 electronic highway toll collection systems around the U.S., recently filed a patent on technology to add multi-function mini-cameras to their toll gadgets. Today, transponders are in about 22 million cars around the U.S. Adding inward and outward facing cameras to the gadgets would create surveillance capabilities far beyond anything government agencies have tried until now."

While Kapsch has explicitly stated that they have no plans to install the cameras in U.S.-market E-Z Pass transponders, there is a reason why some municipalities might request that they do so. The camera could be used to verify that vehicles using high-occupancy lanes are, in fact, occupied by two or three people. Imagine a room full of government drones "verifying" HOV eligibility by playing Peeping Tom. What's to stop them from listening to your conversation for as long as it amuses them?

What if listening isn't enough? What's to stop them from permanently recording your conversation? The US.. Marshals have already been caught storing and recording images generated by backscatter X-ray machines. Nor will the Constitution necessarily stand between American motorists and free-for-all surveillance; the use of tollways is a private transaction between an individual and the company which owns the tollway. There's no reason that the user agreement for an E-Z Pass can't be as restrictive or invasive as, say, the licensing agreement for a particular piece of software.

Not worried yet? It gets better. The "multi-function transponder" can be fitted with an accelerometer. They could be set to alert the tollway operators when multiple cars brake hard at the same time, which could indicate an accident or other obstruction. Alternately, they could be set to start recording, and/or transmit the video and audio feed, when acceleration or lateral g exceeds a certain threshold. Floor it from the toll gate, and you could be providing your local police force with a free self-incriminating video of the event.

As any well-informed Facebook user can tell you, however, it doesn't take government involvement to exploit one's personal information or violate one's privacy. A video-and-accelerometer-equipped E-Z Pass system could create a permanently-stored database of driver behavior. That database would be the legal property of the tollway company and could be sold or rented to an interested third party.

Can you think of any companies which might be interested in obtaining a database of driver behavior? How about, say, GEICO, which purchased LIDAR guns for a variety of police agencies throughout the 1990s and then cheerfully raised the rates on motorists who were tagged by those guns? Progressive Insurance raised eyebrows and made headlines when they offered a "black box" to their insured drivers. The boxes allowed Progressive to tailor their rates to the number of miles driven - and, just incidentally, to measure how fast they drove, how rapidly they accelerated, and how hard they hit the brakes. Needless to say, very few enthusiastic drivers signed up for the program, but if the "multi-function" E-Z Pass becomes reality, many of them will find themselves carrying a "black box" anyway.

In a perfect world, motorists would rise up and smash their E-Z Passes if the "multi-function" transponder were introduced, but history shows that, given a choice between convenience and freedom, most people will choose convenience every time. Just don't be surprised if, 10 years from now, you come home from a long trip on the hallway and find an e-mail from your insurance company notifying you of a "rate adjustment""¦ or you might turn on YouTube and find out that you are the newest nose-picking reality TV star.