Token solution | Opinion | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Token solution

Editorial by Bruce Wark

illustration Graham Pilsworth

So, the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission wants to phase out tokens in its campaign to get more people to sign up for MacPass, the electronic payment system that lets drivers breeze through the toll booths without a care in the world. “MacPass is by far, from the bridge commission perspective and for the majority of our customers, the most efficient way to pay the tolls,” says the commission’s general manager Steve Snider. He adds that consultants have worked out an “astounding set of numbers” to demonstrate the benefits if 80 percent of drivers sign up for MacPass (at present, just over half of them have). MacPass would reduce traffic congestion, saving more than 81 thousand hours a year in time and 1.7 million litres of fuel, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 4.2 million tonnes.

Snider estimates the bridge commission would also save $200,000 in annual administration costs if the Utilities and Review Board approves the plan to ditch the tokens by 2008. If the URB agrees, the commission plans to provide more express lanes for drivers who attach the credit-card sized MacPass antenna to their windshields (Snider says the commission hasn’t decided yet, exactly, how many bridge lanes would be MacPass-only and how many would still accept coins. It’s likely, he adds, that at least half the lanes at both bridges would still accept cash.). The commission also plans to drop the $30 MacPass deposit starting in 2008 as a further inducement to get more drivers to sign up.

Snider’s MacPass sales pitch sounds almost too good to be true—and in some ways it is. Professors at Dalhousie’s law school raised serious concerns last year in a report commissioned by Canada’s privacy commissioner. Their report points out that electronic toll systems like MacPass record when drivers cross the bridges and link this to personal data such as credit card numbers, mailing and email addresses, phone and fax numbers as well as makes and models of vehicles. The bridge commission promises not to release such information for commercial purposes, but Snider acknowledges police can get warrants for it to help in criminal investigations. There are also concerns about the possible use of such information in civil cases. According to the National Law Journal, an American legal magazine, US lawyers are starting to subpoena electronic toll records called E-Z passes in divorce cases. The Journal quotes one lawyer as saying the information is useful in battles over child custody. “When a guy says, ‘Oh I’m home every day at five and I have dinner with my kids every single night,’ you subpoena his E-Z Pass and you find out he’s crossing that bridge every night at 8:30. Oops!”

Although it’s not apparent from the online application form, Snider says it is possible for drivers to sign up for a MacPass without giving any personal information. “If it’s an issue for you,” he says, “come on in and we’ll do an anonymous account.” He adds that anonymous customers would have to come into the customer service centre and pay cash to replenish their accounts instead of enjoying the convenience of automatic deductions from credit cards. He explains that the commission decided to allow anonymous accounts after former Daily News columnist Parker Donham raised privacy concerns when MacPass was first introduced in 1998.

The little-publicized anonymous account option sounds mighty reassuring for those of us who care about privacy in the post 9/11 world. American officials announced last week that Canadians who work or study in the US will have their fingerprints checked every time they reenter the country. And federal public safety minister Stockwell Day says it’s only a matter of time before Canadian travellers will require national ID cards as well as paper passports to cross international borders. As the age of total surveillance descends, it’s nice to know that MacPass users can still enjoy express lane convenience without having to submit to Big Brother’s relentless gaze.

Concerned about your MacPass privacy? Email: [email protected]

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It's official. Toronto has next on a new WNBA team! About time. Should Halifax follow?