The New York Civil Liberties Union today asked the city to consider the impact the proposed congestion pricing plan would have on New Yorkers' privacy.

While the NYCLU takes no position on congestion pricing as a concept and does not oppose the goals of reducing traffic and pollution, the proposed congestion pricing plan requires the installation of hundreds of surveillance cameras across Manhattan. The video cameras would read, and record in a database, the license plates of every vehicle entering the zone to ensure payment is made for entering the restricted area. Through the operation of this video infrastructure, the city would compile a massive database that includes information regarding the movement of hundreds of thousands of identified individuals.

In testimony presented today to the City Council State and Federal Legislation Committee, NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman commended the New York City Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission for acknowledging that the tracking of license plates has privacy implications and setting certain procedures that will protect New Yorkers' personal privacy during the implementation of a congestion pricing plan.

However, a reasonable congestion pricing scheme must include explicit, concrete privacy protections or else the Commission's asserted commitment to protect personal privacy “may be rendered meaningless.”

“What appears to be going on in this chamber today is this: the City Council is presenting the semblance of oversight regarding the creation of a congestion pricing plan, but in the absence of an actual plan,” Lieberman's testimony stated. “City Council members and state legislators should resist the rush to pass a congestion pricing plan – and should demand a meaningful opportunity for public review of and comment upon the actual legislation.”

To truly protect privacy, the NYCLU asserts, there must be independent oversight of both the camera system and database to ensure that no images are leaked and to provide for a complaint process; cameras must only record license plates, and not images of people or objects inside vehicles, pedestrians and nearby storefronts and residences should be off limits; and finally, any plan must guarantee that information is used solely to collect tolls. The database cannot be accessible to credit card companies, the IRS, employers or anyone else.

“Given the potential for abuse when the government systemically starts to collect information about the day-to-day activities of hundreds of thousands of law-abiding people, we believe it is essential that any congestion pricing plan approved by the city include clear and explicit protections for individuals' privacy and due process rights,” Lieberman said.