Serious privacy concerns were raised this week after it emerged that all vehicles in Portugal will have to be fitted with a microchip by July 1, 2011. The law actually comes into force at the beginning of next month, but the government has allowed a one-year transitional period paving the way for the controversial devices to be fitted on an estimated six million vehicles in Portugal. It remains unclear who will foot the bill for installing these devices, though it seems increasingly likely the cost will be borne by motorists.
The ground-breaking legislation was passed last year when the government still had a parliamentary majority, and despite opposition from all political colours, it is set to come into force in a few weeks.
The government has this week moved to appease citizens who say their liberties will be infringed by the microchips, which will be fitted on licence plates.
“The technology chosen is short-range, in other words, information can only be read in close proximity to the vehicle”, the Ministry of Transport said in response to privacy concerns.
The actual legislation was passed last year amidst reservations expressed by the Commission for Data Protection and the president.
In a statement, President Cavaco Silva said the law touches a “very delicate area regarding the safeguarding of citizens’ private lives” and pointed out that the technology must only be used for purposes connected to road traffic control and that the registered data must be duly protected.
At the time of passing the legislation, the government explained the chip will only be used to ease the workload for safety forces, permitting them to access information on inspections and car insurance details. The chip will also allow the quicker identification of abandoned vehicles and ones that have been in accidents, as well as being used to pay tolls and other road fees.
But this week, the government has said its main priority is to have the microchip operational as soon as possible in order to facilitate the charging of tolls on previous toll-free motorways in northern Portugal, and possibly the A22 motorway in the Algarve.
All new motorways will also use this technology.
“Cars using these motorways will need to be fitted with the device”, said Transport State Secretary, Paulo Campos.
He explained during a visit to the north of the country earlier in the week that the chip is “technologically complex and the system will have to be tested to ensure it works hitch-free, especially when it comes to payments”.
But the finer operational details remain a mystery.
“All will be explained in due course in order to allow Portuguese to calmly adapt to the system”, said Mr Campos.
However, it is believed that motorists can make toll payments by either depositing a pre-paid amount into their vehicle account at a pay point or via an ATM, while payments invoiced at a later date will be charged a premium due to administrative costs.
Opposition to the system has been swift and was this week led by the Communist Party (PCP) as it tabled a law decree proposal removing the compulsory element of the licence plate chip.
According to Communist MP António Filipe, the measure is “completely disproportionate to the objectives of its intended use and citizens should be allowed to choose whether or not they want a chip installed on their vehicle”.
“By demanding the fitting of the chip, the government is committing a serious infringement of citizens’ fundamental liberties”, the MP added.
The PSD and Left Bloc have both also tabled similar law reform proposals.
“Once in place, it [the chip] will allow for the creation of a ‘Big Brother’ on our roads and, as a result, will become a serious invasion of the privacy of motorists”, Miguel Macedo of the PSD said.
But the government is certain to stick to its guns on this law, especially with the pending launch of a European Electronic Toll Service (EETS), enabling road users to pay tolls throughout the whole EU.
EETS will be available on all infrastructures in the EU such as motorways, tunnels and bridges where tolls can be paid using on-board equipment.
EETS will eventually reduce cash transactions at toll stations, thereby improving traffic flow and reducing congestion.
The European Commission considers this decision to be the most important improvement for drivers since the abolition of border controls, stating that “the European Electronic Toll Service will enable road users to easily pay tolls throughout the whole European Union thanks to one subscription contract with one service provider and one single on-board unit”.
Electronic toll systems were introduced in several European countries in the early 1990s, Portugal being amongst the pioneers with its highly acclaimed ‘Via Verde’ system.
EETS is expected to be available within two years for all road vehicles above 3.5 tonnes or allowed to carry more than nine passengers, including the driver. It will be available for all other vehicles within four years.
Brendan de Beer