Much has been made of the so-called red-light camera bill pending before the General Assembly that would permit Connecticut’s larger municipalities to install cameras designed to catch scofflaws who roll through stop lights at high-volume intersections. Some have called it the Big Brother Bill.
But a bill OK’d last week by the legislature’s Transportation Committee calls on the Department of Motor Vehicles to study whether radio frequency identification (RFID) devices can be installed on motor vehicles at the point of registration. The proposed legislation would have to be reviewed by at least one other committee before going before the House and Senate and, if it passes both chambers and is signed by Gov. Malloy, on to the DMV.
Dubbed “Little Brother” by The Courant’s Jon Lender, who took a hard look last week at this little-noticed Capitol phenomenon, the bill would have the DMV look into the controversial practice of using RFIDs — tiny devices the size of a computer chip that can be embedded in a vehicle, as well as on many other objects. The device can then transmit the car’s data (e.g. registration, emissions compliance, insurance status, toll collection history) to a reader device controlled by law enforcement authorities, who can, according to expert testimony at a Capitol hearing last week, “immediately notify the nearest police agency to apprehend the car, as the data would identify the exact location, direction of travel, along with the make and color of the vehicle.”
Now I think all of us agree in principle that law enforcement should be given state-of-the-art tools with which to do its job. But how much of our freedoms are we willing to give up in order to make the job of the police easier?
The American Civil Liberties Unions, whose predictable rantings sometimes set my teeth on edge, nonetheless issued an incisive position paper on RFIDs almost eight years ago that showed precisely how the technology, which has been around in one form or another for at least 50 years, could easily be open to abuse.
As the above video clearly shows, RFID technology has been used successfully for years in business, perhaps most notably in the logistics industry to ensure efficiency and accountability in the supply chain. Since 2009, RFIDs have been installed on cars in the Philippines, where some have mocked the concerns of privacy advocates. Fortunately, use in law enforcement here has been met with a healthy dose of skepticism.
From red-light cameras to licence-plate readers to highway monitors mounted on street lights, we have become what the ACLU correctly calls a “surveillance society.”
RFIDs on vehicles leave open the possibility that we could be monitored all day. The technology would make it all too easy for police to harass law-abiding citizens who happen to be critics of, say, the police.
“Why don’t they just tag us like cattle and be done with it?” asked Scott Henson, a blogger and criminal justice reform advocate in Texas, where several years ago state lawmakers considered and ultimately rejected a bill to plant RFIDs in vehicles.
Why resort to privacy-invading technology and spend millions to nab dangerous criminals who fail to buy insurance, renew registration or submit to an emissions test, you ask? Well, journalist Michael Kinsley once defined a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth.”
If so, Sen. Andrew Maynard, co-chair of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee, committed a whopper. RFID technology, Maynard said, “could be an incredible revenue contributor, if we were to implement it.”
According to 2007 figures provided at the hearing, a little more than 10% of Connecticut’s 2.5 million licensed drivers are uninsured, and from 2005 to 2007, only 68,232 of them were ticketed for the offense. Of those who were cited, 75% were never prosecuted, while 15 percent didn’t even bother to show up in court to face the music. Ergo, the state lost the estimated $30 million in revenues the RFIDs would have generated.
Mark my words: as the state’s budget falls farther into deficit — even after last year’s record tax increase — Connecticut lawmakers and the governor will look to “innovative” sources of revenue to feed the government’s insatiable appetite for expansion. They will, of course, need some political cover that’ll allow them to say they didn’t raise taxes so soon after soaking us. And if our right to privacy is the price that must be paid, then so be it.