520 Tolling Starts Soon, But Your Privacy Is Already Protected

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Washington Department of Transportation announced today that tolling will start on the SR 520 bridge on December 29. This will be Washington’s first all-electronic toll bridge—meaning there will be no toll booths—and by far the highest volume all-electronic toll facilities in the country. There are lots of advantages to eliminating toll booths (e.g., less congestion, greater safety), but there are also drawbacks, potentially including a loss of privacy. With an all-electronic system, the identity of every vehicle that crosses the bridge is captured, either through use of a transponder (Good To Go! pass) or automatic recognition of license plates. Those records are used to bill travelers, and then stored in a database for years.

Information about when and where a person drives can reveal a lot about that person, including information that they would prefer to keep private. In many states, toll records are routinely accessed by private attorneys in divorce cases.  And anybody who watches Law & Order knows that law enforcement also uses toll records as a basic investigative technique. As more and more toll facilities are developed in Washington (e.g., downtown Seattle tunnel, Columbia River Crossing, I-405 express lanes), the surveillance possibilities multiply.

Fortunately, the Washington Legislature—with some help from the ACLU—decided it didn’t want Washington to use tolls as an excuse to become Big Brother. It passed a bill in 2010 that includes provisions to prohibit the use of toll records for any purpose other than toll collection and enforcement. This is the strongest toll privacy protection in the country. So come December 29, you may have to be concerned about the effect on your wallet of driving across the 520 bridge, but you won’t need to worry about the effect on your privacy.