Sunday, July 31, 2011

E-ZPass, Coming to a Store Near You

A recent trip to the East Coast reminded me of the E-ZPass vs. cash quandary. I'm a holdout against these in-car tags that let vehicles go through tolls more quickly and result in a monthly charge on a credit card instead of small, incremental cash payments. It's fairly easy for me to be an E-ZPass refuser, I admit, because toll roads aren't common in the Twin Cities.

Traveling through Chicago, Indiana, and Ohio without E-ZPass requires somewhat longer waits at the tolls, even at nonbusy times, and a bucket of change handy in the car. It also costs more because the system punishes E-ZPass refusers by giving discounts to the sheeple who use the pass. (The New York E-ZPass site lists cost differentials as large as 10 times for cash users!)

Why not use E-ZPass?

1. As with any charge to a credit card vs. using cash, it doesn't register with our brains as being real money out of our pockets. The monthly charge becomes a part of the background, and therefore a behavior that never gets reconsidered. If you have to pay tolls every time you travel on a road, you might think a bit more about taking transit or moving closer to your usual destinations. (See Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide for more on this truth about our brains.)

2. Part of the problem of obscuring the incessant payments in a monthly bill is that it stops reminding people about their distaste for toll roads in general.

3. E-ZPass allows the powers-that-be to track your whereabouts. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in Law and Order-watching to know that the police use E-ZPass records to solve crimes. And even though I am completely law-abiding, I have a healthy distrust of government's history of suppressing honest dissent, as in the recent FBI raids on anti-war activists or the preemptive arrests of local anti-RNC agitators. I don't need to give any more information to the government than I have to. E-ZPass records have also been used in civil proceedings, including divorce cases.

E-ZPass works by placing an RFID (radio frequency identification device, usually pronounced ARFID) transponder in every car. If you want to check out some near-future science fiction stories that explore the possible downsides of RFIDs, check out Cory Doctorow's Little Brother or Kim Stanley Robinson's climate change series that starts with Forty Signs of Rain.

But a more immediate use is making its way to a store near you, according to Kara McGuire in today's Star Tribune business section. U.S. Bancorp is testing a system called VITABand -- an RFID embedded in a rubber wristband. If a store's point-of-sale system is set up to receive, you just wave your wrist and you're magically charged for your goods.

Presto, no more need for cashier jobs, just as E-ZPass eliminates jobs at tollbooths. Followed by the likelihood that RFID refusers will be charged more money for their purchases, since they require a cashier and therefore "cost more." (No mention is made of the cost of installing the systems or the ongoing infrastructure costs of maintaining them.)

If it costs more to pay for goods without an RFID device, fewer and fewer people will refuse them, out of economic necessity, and there will rapidly come a time when at least some stores will accept only RFID-based payments.

I realize an RFID system like this isn't a whole lot different than using a debit card at the drop of a hat as many of us do already, and that the same government that I distrust with my toll info is already using debit charges to figure out where people are and what they're up to. But right now, I have the option to stop using a debit card any time. If RFID becomes the standard, that option will disappear.

The Fourth Amendment sets out a clear standard for turning over personal information to the government: There has to be probably cause for the government to search or seize personal property (and by extension, information). Accumulating personal data so it can be warehoused until needed by the government for whatever purpose government deems necessary clearly contradicts that standard.

1 comment:

Unemployed Dragon said...

Thank you DN3! I'm a hold out on the Clipper card, here in the bay area, a card for storing public transit fare to be used on the various transit systems in the area. San Francisco is migrating the various monthly passes to this card system now. Your concern about the use of this sort of technology to track the whereabouts of individuals echos mine.

Until they force me to use it, I'm paying cash and walking more. p