Progressive Policy vs. Privacy
An interesting debate is going on in Oregon, where 280 paid volunteers have agreed to have their cars fitted with GPS systems that will track how many miles they’re driving and tax them accordingly. (The pricing scheme differentiates in-state and out-of-state and between rush-hour and non-rush-hour miles, which is why a simple odometer reading won’t do.) Because gas mileage in new cars is improving, the state wants to tax miles driven rather than gas consumed. However, systems like the one in Oregon could pave the way for congestion pricing, in which drivers are charged more for driving on certain roads or at certain times of day, or mileage-based insurance, which environmental advocates argue is a far more progressive method of insuring cars than a flat per-vehicle fee.
However: Privacy advocates are concerned that the GPS systems could be used to track a driver’s whereabouts, and that mileage records could be subpoenaed and used against a driver in court (to determine whether a criminal suspect is lying about his alibi, for example, or by a suspicious spouse in a divorce). Although Oregon officials say all data will be erased, David Sucher and others have pointed out that nothing is ever really erased in a technologically sophisticated, post-Patriot Act America. Is this a bad thing? Hard to say. Technology has always tested, and frequently surmounted, the limits of traditional notions of privacy, to the point that we think nothing of handing our credit-card information to unseen online merchants, or carrying bar-coded, scannable licenses with us everywhere we go.
More on the privacy implications of mileage-based systems can be found here.