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Column: Congestion Pricing and Big Brother (New York Metro)

By Donna Lieberman — People generally don’t fret much about the proliferation of surveillance cameras in New York City, unless they’re the subject of an intrusive gaze. A good example of this was the Republican National Convention, when surveillance cameras recorded a couple engaged in a romantic liaison on their roof, a location they — quite reasonably — considered private.

Nobody likes a Peeping Tom, especially one with a government budget. Jokes aside, unchecked surveillance cameras compromise our privacy. This is why the New York Civil Liberties Union is paying close attention to congestion pricing.

While the NYCLU doesn’t oppose the important goals of reducing traffic and pollution, we want to be sure that congestion pricing does not take us closer to becoming a surveillance society.

The current plan would use hundreds of cameras to record the license plates of vehicles entering and leaving the congestion-pricing zone. It would match license-plate information against a database of vehicle owners and charge drivers a fee.

This scheme comes as the number of surveillance cameras in New York City skyrockets. Government cameras record us on the street, at school, in public housing and on the subway, and private cameras are in virtually every lobby, restaurant and office building. And cameras are becoming increasingly advanced, capable of capturing intimate images (and, yes, liaisons) from long distances. Your visit to the gay bar or psychiatrist are fair game in our surveillance society.

Initially, none of the proponents of congestion pricing were paying attention to privacy concerns, but, fortunately, the commission appointed to study the issue has at least acknowledged that tracking license plates has privacy implications. And the commission’s report represents an important first step in addressing these concerns. Under the new plan, people could prepay anonymously with an E-ZPass, and all data and images no longer needed would be purged.

These are great steps. But the City Council and state Legislature must go even further. To truly protect privacy, there must be independent oversight of both the camera system and database and mechanisms to prevent leaks and handle complaints. Cameras must also only record license plates. People or objects inside vehicles, pedestrians, storefronts and residences should be off limits. Finally, any plan must guarantee that information is used solely to collect tolls, not help credit-card companies, the IRS, employers or divorcing spouses to pry into our lives.

To implement congestion pricing without these simple steps would subject thousands to the intrusive gaze of government Peeping Toms.

Donna Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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