SUNDAY EDITION | Louisville electronic toll bridges usher in privacy, security concerns
Experts view all-electronic tolling as another frontier in the expanding world of personal data collection. In the Louisville area, tens of thousands of transactions a day will be monitored.
JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. (WDRB) – Before she retired, Fay Allen regularly drove from her home in Jeffersonville to her job in downtown Louisville. She estimates she now makes about 10 trips a month across the Ohio River, mostly for volunteer work.
Allen plans to register for an account with RiverLink, the network of three toll bridges set to open later this year. To do so, she’ll have to provide personal data and allow her license plate to be tracked, but she doesn’t view those measures as an invasion of privacy.
“I believe it’s for our own benefit to provide the information – just like to provide it to your bank (and) many, many organizations,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with that at all.”
In order to help pay for the bridges, Kentucky and Indiana will start charging drivers to cross the river using a high-tech form of tolls: Instead of collecting cash and coins at booths, scanners and cameras will determine the fees.
Drivers won’t have to slow down or stop on the Interstate 65 Kennedy and Lincoln bridges, and a new upriver span. But the convenience comes with some risk. Electronic tolling will monitor and collect tens of thousands of license plate numbers a day, in addition to data from accounts linked to in-car transponders.
Experts view electronic tolling as another frontier in the expanding world of personal data collection. In adding the cashless tolls, the Louisville region joins Texas, California, Massachusetts and other areas across the U.S. whose roads don’t have toll booths – and, in return, face privacy and cybersecurity concerns that didn’t previously exist.
Kentucky law says drivers’ account information isn’t subject to the state Open Records Act and contracts for toll collection must “ensure the confidentiality” of the data. Personal credit and other data can’t be used under Indiana law for “commercial purposes not related” to tolling, and financial details are exempt from public records requests.
The data will be stored in different locations. Kapsch and a subcontractor plan to collect data and process toll transactions in Texas, while customer service centers are in Louisville and Jeffersonville.
“Protection of customer privacy is paramount to our team. Emphasis is placed on the security and safeguarding of customer information from day one,” the company wrote.
In an effort to protect drivers’ privacy and data, Kapsch is “meeting or exceeding” the toll industry’s security standards and using various levels of encryption, said Mindy Peterson, a RiverLink spokeswoman.
She said all toll transactions, including financial ones, will be kept online for a year, then stored for ten years before being purged. The states are holding a series of open houses this month to introduce drivers to the toll network, including the payment options.
Cameras and antennae near the bridges will record license plates or scan transponders on vehicles' windshields. Drivers without toll accounts – linked to a transponder or a license plate – will be billed by mail.
Two types of windshield transponders will be available. A free sticker-like device will work on the Louisville-area bridges, while a heavier transponder will cost $15 and can be used on other roads in the E-ZPass network, such as in Illinois and some eastern states.
The initial one-way toll rates for vehicles with a transponder are: $1 for a driver who makes 40 trips across the river each month; $2 for a passenger car; $5 for a medium truck; and $10 for a heavy truck. RiverLink officials are urging drivers to use transponders, but Peterson said the devices won’t contain personal data.
“When you have that transponder on your windshield, there is no personal information connected to that transponder,” she said. “Somebody is not going to get into your vehicle, take your transponder and have access to any information. That’s not the way it works.”
Data laws differ
In Kentucky, drivers’ data will be shielded from public records requests – meaning employers, would-be thieves and others couldn’t keep tabs on the driving habits of certain people.
But data could be handed over if subpoenaed by law enforcement agencies in criminal cases or attorneys in civil cases. In other states, attorneys have targeted toll data as a way to bolster cases of cheating spouses.
For instance, an attorney in northern New Jersey routinely uses E-ZPass records as “a great way to basically contradict the spouse if they say they’re in one location at a certain time,” said Brian Downey, spokesman for the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
A number of states have passed laws that address the information collected by toll agencies. In Illinois, for instance, agencies can release personal data to police if a warrant or subpoena isn’t practical, while in Pennsylvania those records can’t be released even by court order, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state successfully pushed for a 2010 law that says toll data only can be used for collection purposes – and only in court in a case related to a toll infraction.
“Because we had this regime in place from the beginning, it just hasn’t been an issue. There hasn’t been concern. It’s not like divorce attorneys are now crying all over,” said Doug Klunder, privacy counsel for the state ACLU.
“This is information that we lived without for years before we put in tolling, and having a public policy decision that tolling is an appropriate method of transportation funding shouldn’t have an effect on people’s privacy,” he said. “So, we can change our transportation funding without changing our expectations of privacy.”
Former Washington state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, who co-sponsored the bill, said the measure was partly in response to concerns that government agencies, as well as attorneys, could access drivers’ data through a court order.
She said it also made lawmakers – as opposed to appointed officials who may draft toll policy – directly accountable to voters.
“That’s where we get the liberals and the conservatives (together),” said Haugen, a Democrat. “They come on. They want accountability. Who’s going to be responsible for that?”
In Kentucky, state Rep. Jerry Miller, R-Louisville, said the privacy aspect of electronic tolling “deserves to be considered more deeply.”
Besides the Louisville project, tolling is an option for a proposed Interstate 69 bridge across the Ohio River near Henderson and an improved Mountain Parkway in eastern Kentucky. Tolls would begin in Louisville by the end of the year.
“It will more likely become an issue then,” Miller said. “And it’s something I think those of us worried about civil liberties might want to have a hearing to learn more.”
Security a ‘perennial topic’
Electronic tolling is yet another aspect of daily life that involves data collection, said Michael Losavio, a professor in the University of Louisville’s criminal justice department.
Losavio, who has studied electronic privacy issues, said people may have an easier time embracing the new technology because of GPS and other in-car systems that provide an electronic footprint.
“The amount of data we’re producing from all of these devices is just going to keep getting richer and richer. And it’ll let us make our lives a lot easier, a lot more interesting,” he said. “But all that data creates the possibility of security breaches later. I’m not sure that we’re quite as proactive on securing that stuff as we might.”
Data security is a “perennial topic” at meetings of toll road operators, said Neil Gray, governmental affairs director for the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association.
Gray said he’s not aware of any significant breaches of customer information, although there have been phishing scams in which crooks send emails that appear to be from toll agencies, hoping that account holders will click on links to harmful sites.
In recent years, high-profile data breaches of Target, Anthem and even the Internal Revenue Service have underscored the risks of giving out personal information. Gray said the toll industry, like other businesses, operates under an expectation that, “If you haven’t been hacked yet, you will be. It’s only a matter of time.”
Technology such as automated license plate readers have helped federal agents track suspects in drug cases, said Chief Steve Conrad of the Louisville Metro Police Department. But just because RiverLink will generate a cache of personal information doesn’t necessarily mean police will be able to use it.
“If that data is something that law enforcement can legally use, it would be a tool that we would take advantage of,” he said. “But it really comes down to the regulations and whether that is something we have lawful access to.”
Drivers interviewed by WDRB News at a RiverLink open house in Jeffersonville last week had differing views on privacy and security concerns. Some were aware of large data breaches and wary of giving out more personal information, while others believe their data will be safe.
“I would think it’s been tried and testing and it’s probably OK,” said Alvetta Bryant of Charlestown Ind., who drives to her job in eastern Jefferson County. “I’m not too concerned about that.”
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