As the proposed congestion pricing plan moved through the New York City Council and up to Albany, the New York Civil Liberties Union asked state representatives to consider the impact the proposal would have on New Yorkers’ privacy.

“Our lawmakers may deem congestion pricing right for New York City, but it would be wrong for them to adopt legislation that does not effectively address the serious privacy issues raised by a system that would rely on hundreds of surveillance cameras monitoring and recording lawful activity,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU.

In order to ensure payment is made for entering the congestion pricing zone, the plan now before the State Legislature would install scores of surveillance cameras to read, record and catalogue the license plates of every vehicle entering Manhattan south of 60th Street. Through this video infrastructure, the city would compile a massive database of information regarding the movements of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.

The New York City Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission has acknowledged that the tracking of license plates has privacy implications and set certain procedures to protect New Yorkers’ personal privacy rights. But more needs to be done. 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.

To truly protect privacy, said NYCLU Legislative Director Robert Perry, 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. The 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. The plan must have an anonymous payment option so that vehicles can enter the congestion pricing zone without being recorded, provided payment is made. And finally, the legislation must provide for independent oversight of both the camera system and database to ensure that no images are leaked and to provide for a complaint process.

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