Big Brother in the Front Seat


As more and more states enact bans on texting while driving, officials frustrated with enforcing the bans might one day have a disturbing new tool in their kit. As Bob Sullivan reports for MSNBC:

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.

The stated reason for an inward-pointing camera is to verify the number of occupants in the car for enforcement of HOV and HOT lanes. The outward-pointing camera could be used for the same purpose, helping authorities enforce minimum occupant rules against drivers who aren't carrying transponders.

But it's easy to imagine other uses. The patent says the transponders would have the ability to store and transmit pictures, either at random intervals or on command from a central office. It would be tempting to use them as part of a search for a lost child, for example, and law enforcement officials might find the data treasure trove irresistible.

E-Z Pass and Kapsch claim there's no need to worry. "I just don't think it's something that would gain a lot of traction," P.J. Wilkins, executive director of the E-Z Pass group, told Sullivan.

On the other hand, Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Sullivan that people should voice their concerns right away:

Once you have the device out there, someone says, 'Why not use it for this, or that.' That's usually where the battle between privacy and other social goals is lost.

Whether you believe that distracted driving is a legitimate problem (and that government regulation is the solution) or not, the potential risks from letting the government constantly look inside our cars should not be ignored.

Read Reason's ongoing coverage of distracted driving laws here, here, and here.