Efficiency vs. Privacy

Or --  Does This Shirt Look Okay?

Alan Weiss

In June I made a speech in Philadelphia, so my wife and I decided to take a vacation on the Jersey Shore. (Most coastal states have beaches, but Jersey—where we both grew up—has a "shore." And the southern Jersey shore is far better than any beaches on the Atlantic with the exception of Florida.) It was an opportunity to run the Aston, and we put over 800 miles on it.

In so doing, we were able to use our EZPass, which is an automated toll payment system in common use throughout the northeast. (Of course, it’s not in use in Rhode Island at the Newport Bridge, because it wasn’t invented in Rhode Island and, hence, cannot be safely implemented here for another hundred years or so. I met three more people just last week in Warwick who have never been to New York. Rhode Island is not a state of the union, but rather a state of mind, and we may all be in some touring road show, no more real than Camelot, without knowing it.)

The EZPass enables you to sweep through toll lanes (actually at about 10 miles per hour in second gear) because your electronic pass is "read" by an optical scanner as you drive by. It’s actually very efficient, and the tolls are automatically deducted from your account, which is in turn fed by a credit card. A message board tells you that you’ve paid and thanks you as you drive by. The scanners also take a picture of your license plate to ensure that the pass and the authorized car match (we have to have separate gizmos in each car). And then, at the Tappan Zee Bridge on the way home, I received a slight jolt.

The message screen added, "Your account is low." Well!!

That was embarrassing. I mean, other people could have seen that. What if it said, "Your outfit doesn’t match," or "That car is a bit much," or "What does she see in you?"

I’ve never been all that worried about "Big Brother" (Orwell, like Nostradamus or this clown on television purporting to communicate with "the other side," got most of it wrong, though people don’t like to dwell on that), but I’m starting to wonder how far privacy will be degraded. I receive junk mail with personalized greetings obviously based on personal data about me. Worthless email comes every day as a result of my address being lifted from otherwise innocent and desirable sources. Airport security people often poke around and learn what underwear I use and whether or not I’m packing deodorant. Credit card companies possess an astounding amount of data about not only our credit, but our habits and proclivities.

In some apartment buildings in large cities, landlords are fighting for and often winning the right to enter tenants’ apartments because of fears of terrorists placing explosives in rented units. We’ve all become gradually and subliminally accustomed to carrying "photo ID" in the form of driver’s licenses and passports. And we read every day of people whose identities are stolen by crooks who use their credit and good name to engage in wild spending sprees.

Unfortunately, our society tends to be "all or nothing," an on/off switch rather than a rheostat. Yet there must be a happy medium between efficiency and protection on the one hand, and invasion of privacy and exploitation on the other.

There must be, right?

In the meantime, I’m making sure that I wear a decent outfit when I drive through the EZPass lane…