The video police state predicted by George Orwell creeps ever closer to reality with the seemingly pro-environment concept of "congestion pricing" introduced by New York City's mayor on Earth Day. In principle, congestion pricing sounds beneficial -- the idea being to reduce traffic by charging drivers. In practice, the system relies heavily on video surveillance, and poses serious privacy concerns.
New York would not be the first major city to install a network of video cameras to read vehicle license plate numbers and check them against a database every time they enter the "congestion zone". But it would be the first American city to do it.
Two big cities that have already gone down this road are Singapore and London. Singapore is already an authoritarian state, so the arrival of license plate video cameras only added icing to the police cake. And London, though known more for personal freedom and civil liberties than Singapore, is a world leader in police video surveillance. When the congestion pricing system was installed in London in 2003, an extensive and widely publicized network of police surveillance cameras was already monitoring the streets of downtown London.
New Yorkers may prove to be more resistant to the encroachment of police video surveillance -- even for the limited purpose of reading license plate numbers. But regardless of what happens in New York, this technology is likely to catch on elsewhere.
Not too far down the road, driving promises to be a far less anonymous than it is today. After midtown Manhattan starts charging to drive in, downtown might follow next, and then who's to stop neighboring Brooklyn and Queens from charging fees too (presumably lower, they're on the outskirts). Eventually, it's not hard to envision a scenario in which every city and town of any size is continuously monitoring which license plates are driving in and out.
For U.S. motorists, this conjures quite a different vision of driving. From the earliest days of the automobile, American culture has championed the freedom of the open road, with imagery in car commercials emphasizing adventure and rugged individuality. Checking in with the local constable upon arrival was never part of that image. RFID toll collection may have started this process, but video surveillance technology promises to make it pervasive and unavoidable.