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RISKS: Informed public opinion of automatic toll collection

Anonymity and privacy interest:


Date: Tue, 21 Nov 1995 15:07:48 -0800 (PST)
From: Phil Agre <[email protected]>
Subject: Resistance to intelligent traffic

Public resistance to electronic road-use taxes is continually to grow
worldwide.  Most recently, a panel of 14 laymen assembled by Teknologi
Naevnet (i.e., The Danish Board of Technology, Antonigade 4, DK-1106,
Denmark, +45 33 32 05 03 -- see report number 5/1995), having been presented
with arguments pro and con concerning "intelligent traffic" technologies,
concluded that it "does not see any substantial economic, environmental or
safety benefits from massive public investments in traffic informatics --
perhaps with the exception of public transport".  On the issue of safety,
for example, they accepted that some likely safety benefits existed, but
that they had to be weighed against other potential dangers, for example
that drivers' skills may deteriorate due to reliance on automation, and in
any event they concluded that if safety should be improved then much more
cost-effective measures were available anyway.  They also raised concerns
about privacy and emphasized that new legislation would have to regulate the
new databases that such systems would accumulate.

The report fits an emerging global pattern.  When electronic road tolls and
other forms of high technology that entail surveillance of citizens'
movements are implemented quietly, creating a fait accompli, citizens tend
to accept them fatalistically.  But when any sort of democratic procedure is
employed, public resistance is very stiff indeed.  This phenomenon suggests
two possible scenarios for the future:

 (1) Continued stealth implementation, leading to deepening public distrust
     of information technology and the organizations that control it.

 (2) Genuine public involvement in the social choices being made about
     "intelligent" roadway technologies, leading to legitimate decisions
     based on full public debate, and potentially as well to technological
     improvements (such as the use of digital cash and other technologies
     of anonymity) that deliver a broad range of functionality while
     responding appropriately to legitimate public concerns.

Which scenario occurs will depend on the political culture of each country.
More concretely, it will depend on the degree to which people are informed
about the issues, express their concerns, and ensure that the more legitimate
course is taken.

Phil Agre, UCSD

Steven Weller                      |  "The Internet, of course, is more
+1 415 390 9732                    |  than just a place to find pictures
                                   |  of people having sex with dogs."
[email protected]                   |       -- Time Magazine, 3 July 1995