I've never wanted an automatic toll-paying account. Call them what you will in your region, e.g., Fastrak (Bay Area), EZ Pass (NY/NJ), Fast Lane (Massachusetts), etc. but I've always seen them as having significant downsides that would counter-balance, and indeed outweigh, their alleged convenience. At minimum I've questioned whether they could be trusted to debit your account properly and whether it would not be an enormous headache, if actually possible, to correct their inevitable mistakes.
But more importantly, I was not keen to put a transponder in my car that could let the government know where I was at all times.
Even if all the transponder readers could be counted on to reside only at actual toll booths, I still did not want my presence there to be so discoverable. Nearly every other Law and Order episode seems to involve someone's alibi being checked against the EZ Pass records. Do we really want the government to be able to know where we've been so easily? Because unless there are significant safeguards like warrant requirements that must be met before the police can access the EZ Pass accounts there is nothing preventing them from knowing where any one of us have been at any time -- even when we're completely innocent.
So I deprived myself of the discounts that the government plied the masses with. In the Bay Area, you see, bridge crossings are a dollar cheaper if you let the government attach a tracking device to your car. I decided my privacy was worth more than that and so have refused it.
But I may need to rethink my approach, because it turns out I didn't have any privacy anyway.
In order to ensure that people without Fastrak accounts don't sail through the unattended toll lanes, they've hung cameras up. The cameras take pictures of every single license plate that passes through, whether the toll is paid or not. But maybe that's reasonable; after all, if you have a transponder, the government already knows you're there -- and in an indexable, storeable, and searchable way.
There are other toll lanes though, staffed toll lanes that allow you to either drive through with Fastrack or stop and pay the attendant in cash. I always opt for that latter, more anonymous payment choice. What I hadn't realized, however, is that they are taking pictures of my car anyway!
I discovered that they were rather unpleasantly earlier this month. An envelope had arrived, containing in it a notice of a Fastrak violation. Even though I had stopped to pay cash, as I do every time, the toll booth panopticon had taken a picture of my front plate anyway, and then arbitrarily decided to accuse me of toll evasion.
I am now thrust into a Byzantine bureaucracy where the burden seems to be on me to prove my innocence. The first step is to sign a box on the form declaring that I am innocent of the charge and enclose some written justification (pity the non-English speaking and/or illiterate drivers who get similarly trapped) for my declaration. Unfortunately, I did not have a receipt to copy and send along with my dispute. It's not like receipts are automatically handed out, and, even if I'd gotten one, I'd probably long since thrown it out. (New policy: always ask for a receipt, and always keep it for at least a month.) So I sent off what's essentially little more than a self-righteous diatribe and we'll see if that's enough. Otherwise the next step is to request an administrative hearing, which seems great: due process! Except you first have to pay the charge!! Which is not only the now twice-taken toll, but also the $25 penalty. Good luck getting that back if you win... How is such a system to be trusted to make refunds accurately when it can't even figure out how to charge people properly?
Driving through the toll area on the next occasion I stopped and asked the attendant if perhaps the earlier one had failed to press a button. You know, the button they must press to indicate that cash was paid and therefore there's no reason to engage the Fastrak system, which would then take pictures of their cars and dun them for non-payment. Apparently, however, no such button exists, which makes me wonder why I haven't received a violation notice for every other time I've passed through the tollgate. How did it know then whether or not I'd paid?
And, she went on to inform me, the toll booth takes a picture of everyone. No matter how law-abiding the driver of that car was, the government takes a picture, an indexable, storeable, and searchable picture, of where you've been.
It's funny, and I use that term bitterly, that my now-growing pile of receipts in my car would have some clear constitutional protections against search and seizure, seeing how they clearly qualify as the "papers" and effects covered by the Fourth Amendment. But surely so should my front license plate, because the consequence of its capture is just as violative of my privacy, if not more, as a warrantless search of my receipts would be.