Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Toll roads, petrol taxes, and privacy

Yesterday the government reversed its long-standing opposition to road tolls, and instead suggested tolling roads in Auckland to reduce congestion. Today, they suggested the quid pro quo: lower petrol taxes. So why should we prefer one to the other?

Both petrol taxes and road tolls make transport users pay the cost of their activities. Petrol taxes are broader: the more you drive, the more you pay. Road tolls and congestion charges ar emore specific, allowing certian useage at certain times (e.g. rush hour, or the afternoon school run) to be targetted. But there is one major difference between the two: privacy.

Once upon a time, toll roads meant stopping and paying at a booth. Now, they use Automatic Number Plate Recognition to automatically identify and record vehicles. The mere act of running a toll road means collecting and storing a huge amount of information about people's everyday movements. And that information is available to others: not just the toll operator, but to police, intelligence agencies, even private individuals. And that's only looking at lawful disclosure. Toll operators could conceivably track individual vehicles and sell the information to third-parties for profit.

The best way to protect your privacy is not to create information in the first place. Toll roads create vast quantities of highly intrusive information. Once the information exists, it will be used. Better to stop that at the source. Better to tax petrol than toll roads.