The Privacy Implications of Replacing Gas Taxes with Mileage Taxes


The state of Oregon, worried about the crimp that improved gas mileage is putting into its attempt to fund roads through gasoline taxes, wants to tax miles driven rather than gas purchased–and to use GPS technology in cars to track miles driven for those taxing purposes. (Because they want a sophisticated pricing scheme that diffentiates between miles driven in-state and out-of-state, and during rush hour and outside rush hour, mere odometer readings won't do.)

According to the New York Times account, this has some privacy advocates itchy:

A pilot program based on the experiment rolls out at the end of March and will last at least a year. Within the next six weeks or so, 280 paid volunteers will have their cars equipped with a global positioning system that will allow the vehicles to be tracked by computers installed at two Portland service stations, where the drivers will be required to fill up.

The Oregon program is being watched closely across the country….

Critics say the G.P.S. records collected by the service stations could be subpoenaed for any number of reasons: criminal cases involving terror suspects or civil cases like divorces, where, for example, a suspicious husband or wife may seek gas pump receipts to prove the whereabouts of a spouse.

"I think what we've learned since Sept. 11 is that federal law enforcement seems to have an insatiable appetite for every bit of information that might be available," said David L. Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties group in Washington. "The existence of such a database, which would, for the first time in history, allow for the creation of detailed daily itineraries of every driver, raises obvious privacy concerns."

With the pilot program, the data "will be routinely erased, except for the most recent gas pump receipt, said James M. Whitty, manager of the Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding at the State Department of Transportation."

In reality, it could go either way–as Sobel points out, such routine erasing would make it difficult to ever dispute charges from the system. In a world in which technologies (many obviously very useful, as would be a way to more accurately connect road payments with road use, as this Oregon plan promises) are more and more eating away at our traditional obscurity in the eyes of the world, perhaps it will eventually become a social norm that our cars are equipped–by law, one imagines, though the Times story doesn't say how Oregon plans to make this a universal system–with these GPS trackers that government will have constant access to. It might all eventually seem no more alarming than, say, the very fact that they have the authority to tax us at all, or that strangers can make devices ring in our house without our knowledge or consent.

For more on the gradual disappearance of traditional notions of privacy in the face of the efficiency of databases and data collection technologies, see Declan McCullagh's epoch-making Reason cover story from June 2004, wrapped in the first magazine cover to feature subscriber's own homes photographed on the cover, on the sometimes unseen benefits of loss of privacy.