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Massachusetts’ Automated Toll System Raises Privacy Concerns

Massachusetts Turnpike's Fast Lane SystemMassachusetts Turnpike's Fast Lane System

For drivers, the good news about Massachusetts’ new all-automated toll collection system is they won’t have to stop at a booth to fork over cash, or even slow down so their E-ZPass transponder can pay for them. The possibly less good news, according to a report in Monday’s Boston Globe, is the system could also be used to flag and track specific vehicles.

The new toll system includes a “hot list” feature, unearthed by The Globe, and subsequently confirmed by state transportation officials. The feature could be used for amber alerts regarding missing children or in other public safety emergencies.

On Monday, the state’s transportation board will discuss which situations will merit use of the hot list, according to the report.

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While the new feature could help police perform legitimate searches, it also raises privacy concerns among watchdog groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). They want to know what data will be collected and stored, and for how long. And they would like to know what specific situations would trigger a “hot list” search.

The benefits of cash-free transactions are clear. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation posting says the removal of toll booths and the associated traffic bottlenecks will increase traffic flow and safety.

The organization also says it is “committed to ensuring the privacy of all motorists. All data collected will remain secure and kept confidential.”

That’s a pretty detail-free statement.

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Automated toll systems also spark other issues. After San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge went to an all-automated system three years ago, many rental car customers were stunned to find they were billed not just for their tolls but for add-on charges of $10 to $15, according to SFGate.com.

Update:The Massachusetts Turnpike, which traverses the state east to west, should finish its conversion to automated tolls on October 28. Cameras affixed to 16 gantries will photograph license plates. Those images will be used to assess tolls on cars that do not have EZpass transponders.

On Monday, state officials said they will keep data as long as it takes to ensure tolls are paid, and that could be for more than a year, given that car registration renewals depend on payment of all fees and tolls.