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December 11, 2009

GPS Road Tax and Big Brother

Traditionally consumers pay for roads through a gasoline tax. The more you drive, the more you pay (at a linear rate). There are two perceived problems with this approach:
(1) as we move into electric/hydrogen cars, the tax base supported by gasoline-fueled vehicles diminishes, and
(2) the gasoline tax is a rather blunt instrument, which doesn't support nuanced applications like congestion-based pricing (city centers or crowded highways during peak hours).
An alternative to a gasoline-based road tax is a mileage tax utilizing GPS. The Netherlands has announced their intention to implement a GPS mileage tax, and in the US there's interest in Oregon, California, and Massachusetts.

One of the problems with GPS-based road taxes is that there's no infrastructure to support it. We'd have to install a GPS in each car, establish a reporting system, and build a new agency to administer the program.

Another problem is privacy; I may not want Big Brother to have records of where my car has been. Advocates of a GPS-based road tax are quick to promise that the GPS data will only be used for revenue, and possibly for some criminal investigations.

That's what leads me to this week's news about how in the United States, Sprint/Nextel's Electronic Surveillance Department has provided GPS location data about its wireless customers to law enforcement over 8 million times in 13 months.

Paul Taylor, the Sprint/Nextel Electronic Surveillance Manager, said: We turned on the web interface for law enforcement about one year ago last month, and we just passed 8 million requests. So there is no way on earth my team could have handled 8 million requests from law enforcement, just for GPS alone. So the tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement. They also love that it is extremely inexpensive to operate and easy (to use).

That's just one telecom company, giving up location info 8 million times over 13 months, without any interaction with the courts. No checks and balances - the police go to the web portal, submit their request, and they get the info.

This blog describes how "the government routinely obtains customer records from ISPs detailing the telephone numbers dialed, text messages, emails and instant messages sent, web pages browsed, the queries submitted to search engines, and geolocation data, detailing exactly where an individual was located at a particular date and time."

Personally, I'm not pleased about my cellphone reporting my whereabouts to the authorities without a court order. It's not that I live a Tiger Woods lifestyle, but I believe I have a right to be left alone, free from surveillance unless a court issues a warrant.


n'at said...

The oddity is that many states have this information already, and if they don't it can be obtained quite readily either by an annual vehicle inspection report or from the operator's motor vehicle insurance agency.
Insurance companies have required this information for years, because mileage works into their equations to determine your liability and premium fees.

Mark Arsenal said...

Heh heh... I drool to see the look on the poor investigators' faces when they read some of the text messages my friends and I share. Woohoo!

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