So, after more than a decade under consideration, a gantry-free road pricing system is finally coming online in Singapore as soon as 2020.
Surprisingly, questions of an Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system acting like Big Brother, tracking the movement of cars down to the last 50 metres, aren’t new.
They had been asked even of the current gantry system. Yes, it can be used to identify cars passing through, even those that had their Cashcards dutifully slotted in their in-vehicle units.
In an exchange of letters in the media in 2001, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) rather contradicted itself when it claimed it did not track all the vehicles passing through or kept records of them.
If so, it was a mystery how the LTA had once issued refunds to those who were wrongly charged by the system. How did it identify these vehicles?
If the authorities were not clear then about the way data was collected and stored, what about now, when there’s the added ability to also analyse the data?
Sadly, the LTA has so far not been clear either. Almost as a side note to the big news of this impressive satellite tracking technology, it has been telling people not to worry so much.
“We want to reassure all road users that the necessary safeguards will be incorporated, so only data necessary to perform relevant functions will be collected,” a spokesman was quoted in the Today newspaper last year, when it announced the call for a tender.
What data? What relevant functions? Besides collection, what about storage? Or analysis?
There’s no question the new system has the potential to keep roads less congested. Or enable driver-less cars in future as part of a grand intelligent transport system (yes, smart nation).
However, the more data is involved, the more transparent the authorities have to be to build trust. And this is not because of some post-Snowden paranoia.
The government itself recognises the importance of data protection. That’s why Singapore has clear rules for the private sector. Companies, for example, are told they cannot keep holding information that is collected for a purpose that’s no longer valid.
Yet, the government is exempt from the Personal Data Protection Act. That means the LTA doesn’t have to follow the strict guidelines on personal data that the government prescribes to the corporate world, even when it will soon hold a trove of sensitive information.
Will the LTA come out to assure the public of the steps it has in place to govern how the data is handled? Among the many questions you should ask the authorities, here are five that are the most pressing:
1. What information is collected through the new on-board unit in the vehicle?
2. Where is the data stored and for how long?
3. Who has access to the information and how is this access provided?
4. What safeguards are there to prevent unauthorised access?
5. Under what circumstances will the data be handed over, say, to the police?
Nobody will argue if the system somehow tracks potential terrorists on the road to some major mischief. At the same time, many ordinary citizens won’t mind being “tracked”, perhaps anonymously, if this leads to less congested roads.
The process just has to be clearer. Transparency, unfortunately, seems to be a tough ask of the new ERP system so far.
(NOTE: Besides the embedded image from Getty Images, the feature image of an ERP gantry used for a preview of this story is reproduced under a Creative Commons license. Source: Wikipedia).