Civil contractor Transurban doesn't want Washington D.C.
drivers cheating its toll system -- so it is going
to scan them.
An expansion of a major Washington D.C. highway I-495, the Capital Beltway, is
planned to start next year. The highway loops around D.C. and crosses
through Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
The expansion plans to bring privately operated toll lanes to the table as an
alternative for commuters in rush hour traffic. The big perk is that
carpoolers will get to ride in these lanes for free under the current plan.
Enforcement though is a sticky issue; how to determine people from decoy
dummies or large dogs riding in the passenger seat? Rather than manually
policing the area, the companies owning the project have proposed using
technology that would scan drivers and passengers with bursts of infrared light
that detect the reflectivity of human skin.
Ken Daley, a senior vice president of one of the two companies contracted for
the project, says that the technology is so advanced that it can accurately ID
a human face from an animal such as a pet.
Transurban has given no word on whether the devices might also be used for
"national security" or other government purposes.
Washington D.C. drivers are not very happy about the proposal. They are
voicing their concerns to the government, raising uncertainty of whether the
project will be approved. Aside from the general discomfort with the idea
of being watched, they fear the move could be used against them legally or
Divorce courts could theoretically file for images of a route the husband or wife
might have taken to see where they were really going to. Employers could
do the same if they suspected an employee of using their sick days for
vacation. Worse yet, insurance companies could use the information to ID
drivers with long commutes and up their rates.
Ginger Goodin, an engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute, feels bad for
the concerned commuters. "[Commuters] feel a sense of privacy in their
vehicle, even though they may not really have it if you look at the legal cases,”
said Goodin. “[But] if they just can't stomach [scanning systems], then
they have their choice, right next to it, to use the general-purpose
The case is drawing attention as it may become an example by which other states
choose their policies. Maryland and Virginia both have planned expansions
on their books.
California and Colorado both have privately run toll roads that are currently
free to carpoolers. In California, police wait behind concrete blocks
ready to jet out and pull over offenders. In Colorado, they use a much
simpler system which simply has drivers peel off into a separate lane mid-trip
where they are visually checked to avoid payment.
The D.C. area contractors' moves will likely stir up a hornet nest of privacy
concerns. The issue is strikingly similar to the fears surrounding RFID
implants and the prospect of mandatory chipping. Last year Scott Silverman, Chairman of the Board of
VeriChip Corporation, who make the only FDA approved RFID
a solution to the problem of illegal immigration -- mandatory microchipping
of guest workers and anyone found to be illegally dwelling in or trying to
enter the U.S. The previous day President Bush, whose former head of the Department of Health and Human
Sciences Tommy Thompson is currently serving on Verichip's board, had called
for "high-tech measures to solve the immigration problem."
There is significant pending and passed legislation that aims to protect constituents
from unwanted intrusion and scanning. As reported by DailyTech,
California's state Senate recently passed a bill banning companies or anyone
else from forcing a California citizen to be involuntarily microchipped.
These issues will not go away as technology becomes more and more entrenched in
our day to day lives. People will likely struggle with these complex
moral issues as they ponder whether the benefits of increased safety are worth
someone being able to watch them in their daily lives.
quote: The Fourth Amendment, and the personal rights which it secures, have a long history. At the very core stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion. Entick v. Carrington, 19 Howell's State Trials 1029, 1066; Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 626 -630. 4 This [365 U.S. 505, 512] Court has never held that a federal officer may without warrant and without consent physically entrench into a man's office or home, there secretly observe or listen, and relate at the man's subsequent criminal trial what was seen or heard.
quote: The question we confront today is what limits there are upon this power of technology to shrink the realm of guaranteed privacy.
quote: We think that obtaining by sense-enhancing technology any information regarding the interior of the home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical “intrusion into a constitutionally protected area,” Silverman, 365 U.S., at 512, constitutes a search–at least where (as here) the technology in question is not in general public use. This assures preservation of that degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted.
quote: Where, as here, the Government uses a device that is not in general public use, to explore details of the home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a “search” and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant.
quote: "bypasses the safeguards provided by an objective predetermination of probable cause, and substitutes instead the far less reliable procedure of an after-the-event justification for the . . . search, too likely to be subtly influenced by the familiar shortcomings of hindsight judgment." Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 96 .
quote: The Government maintains, however, that the thermal imaging must be upheld because it detected “only heat radiating from the external surface of the house,” Brief for United States 26. The dissent makes this its leading point, see post, at 1, contending that there is a fundamental difference between what it calls “off-the-wall” observations and “through-the-wall surveillance.” But just as a thermal imager captures only heat emanating from a house, so also a powerful directional microphone picks up only sound emanating from a house—and a satellite capable of scanning from many miles away would pick up only visible light emanating from a house. We rejected such a mechanical interpretation of the Fourth Amendment in Katz, where the eavesdropping device picked up only sound waves that reached the exterior of the phone booth. Reversing that approach would leave the homeowner at the mercy of advancing technology–including imaging technology that could discern all human activity in the home. While the technology used in the present case was relatively crude, the rule we adopt must take account of more sophisticated systems that are already in use or in development.