The Downing Street road pricing petition, which closed on Tuesday night, has had an immediate but largely unnoticed effect. It appears to have wrung a reasonably firm privacy commitment from Tony Blair.
We should stress at this point that it is only a reasonable commitment, not an absolute one, but although there is wiggle-room, Blair's words (if they're not to be eaten straight away) should place significant restrictions on the kinds of scheme designs that will be possible. Local authorities considering running the government's proposed road pricing pilot schemes would do well to note this now, because they could waste a lot of money on systems that break too many rules to be acceptable.
The key passage comes in Blair's email to the protesters, which went out shortly after the petition closed: "...any technology used would have to give definite guarantees about privacy being protected - as it should be. Existing technologies, such as mobile phones and pay-as-you-drive insurance schemes, may well be able to play a role here, by ensuring that the Government doesn't hold information about where vehicles have been."
The "definite guarantees" of protection of privacy are, as we've already seen in numerous other areas, worthless in that they can be suspended in the name of national security and fighting crime, and are unlikely to apply entirely to whatever long list of accredited officials the Government cares to attach to the enabling legislation. And just last month Blair kicked off a campaign to persuade voters that "over-zealous" data protection rules that impede the sharing of information on citizens should be relaxed. Historically, if the data exists the security services are going to be allowed to trawl it and numerous Government officials will have access to it, and will share it.
So the key commitment from Blair comes with "by ensuring that the Government doesn't hold information about where vehicles have been", and the Government needs to be pressed hard on precisely what he means by that. What is wrong, we could ask, with changing that to "ensuring that nobody holds information about where vehicles have been"? That wouldn't be accepted, but it would help to highlight the intended exceptions.
The current most likely candidate for future road pricing schemes isn't particularly promising when it comes to non-retention of data. In theory various different technologies are likely to be piloted, but the most favoured technology is the European Galileo satellite system, which has been repeatedly referred to in road pricing related speeeches and proposals. Blair himself notes that it will be "ten years or more before any national scheme was technologically, never mind politically, feasible", and is quite clearly talking about Galileo. There is also, from a pan-European perspective, a political necessity that Galileo appear in some way to pay for itself, and road pricing is one of the less hopeless of the ideas hopefully put forward to justify it (the delusional applications they hope will make Galileo a success are worth dealing with in their own right, but another day...).
A system designed around Galileo would work (we use the word advisedly) in a similar way to the lorry road pricing scheme currently used in Germany, and proposed for the UK's Lorry Road User Charging scheme (LRUC), which was abandoned in favour of a general, national scheme in 2005. A 'black box' in the vehicle would be needed to take the vehicle's position from Galileo and to record and/or transmit on this data for use by the charging systems. In such a set-up positioning and use data is clearly collected, and clearly needs to be related to a charging mechanism (which in the case of most motorists would be a named account), and there you have your snoop record, the data that "the Government doesn't hold."
So who does, for how long, and what are the exceptions to deletion? Here, friends, we have arrived in the wiggle space. Short of an unexpected counter-revolution that knocks us back to the 1970s, private contractors will be involved. From a business perspective these will have no need to retain data for long periods, and insofar as there will be cost implications in terms of storage, security and retrieval (for the exceptions), their commercial interest lies in deleting the data fairly speedily once they've got the money. As is the case, ahem, with telecommunications companies and ISPs where, as you may have noticed, Government doesn't hold the data either. It orders the telcos to hold it then helps itself when it feels the need.
It is possible to allow the companies running a road pricing schemes to delete the data quickly, or even, as the consequence of a sudden rush of data protection concern to the head, for Government to require this deletion, but it would be entirely out of character. It would also run counter to planning in Europe, the Department for Transport, police services, and automotive technology.