George Orwell Drives on Highway 6

By Edo Amin

Israel’s Experiment in Privatizing Citizen Surveillance

THE GREEN LINE, Israel/West Bank — Following his mother down the embankment toward Israel, the Palestinian boy was about to get the scare of his young life. After falling in the mud, the boy looked up into the reflecting sunglasses of a former Israeli special forces commando dressed neck to toes in black khakis and combat boots, the big grip of a pistol sticking out of his bullet-proof vest. “[The boy] looked at me like I was the angel of death,” said Yossi Ajzan, chief of security for the Trans-Israel Highway. “We helped them all the way back to the fence. The Palestinians know me: I am no Santa Claus, but I have no fight with them.” Chicago tribune, August 2001

Israel’s Highway 6 was built by the Build Operate Transfer (BOT) financial method. Under this method, the Government grants a group of private companies a concession to design, construct and operate projects requiring extensive financing, while at the end of the concession period the project is transferred to the State. In this way, the state can overcome the lack of public financing and obtain private financing to develop the infrastructure without using government funds and without risk to public capital due to problems that might arise in the course of the construction and operation. But in the Highway 6 BOT operation there is another consideration – because the Road is built by a private company and uses a Free Flow system, the government will thus install, and later receive, an advanced surveillance system without much of a public debate.

Israel’s Highway 6, officially completed in January 2004, is a toll road – but it has no pay booths. To bill drivers, it uses an unusual billing system. Today’s world has only three roads that operate the “Free Flow” system, where drivers do not stop for payment. Those three are a toll road in Melbourne, Australia; Toronto, Canada’s Road 407, and Israel’s Highway 6. The last two use the same technology, made by Raetheon, better known in Israel as the producer of the Patriot anti-ballistic missiles.

Israel’s Highway 6 was designed for a traffic load of 250,000 cars daily. How will this load of traffic be charged – without any booths? Derech Eretz, Highway 6’s owner, was terse about it: “How is the charge effected?”, its web site answers a frequently asked question: “Since the Highway is fully electronic and doesn’t have entrance and exit barriers, the charge will be processed in a completely automatic manner by several charging methods, for the drivers convenience”.

Looking into the reality of the process, it becomes clear why Road 6 is not too forthcoming in details. It’s the stuff Big Brothers are made of: each car, as it enters one of Highway 6 ramps, and while moving on the road, is scanned by an advanced optical surveillance system. Such systems, that use complex algorithms and fast computers to analyses visual data, caused privacy concerns when they were employed in public spaces in the US after the 11 September events in 2003. However, they were implemented in Israel about a year earlier.

Cars without an electronic transponder are photographed upon entry into, and exit from the highway, with no need to stop. The car owner’s particulars are downloaded into the Highway 6 billing system directly from the Licensing Department of the Ministry of Transport, in accordance with the Toll Road Law passed by the Knesset. An invoice for payment is sent straight to the driver’s home.

The Australian government, however, did not allow such intimate connection with Transurban – the company who built Melbourne’s equally “Free Flowing” toll road. Privacy concerns limited Transurban to transferring photos of indebted drivers to the police who in turn locates them. Security measures notwithstanding, in 2002 Australians were shocked to find out that a Transurban employee illegally got hold of drivers’ data. But the fact is Melbourne’s road proves that in order to bill a person, you do not need to identify him or her in real time.

The Israeli Road 6 system, in comparison, releases sensitive public data to the hands of a private company. The interface to connect the two was programmed by the Israeli Ness company. Launching of the system was not accompanied by a noisy campaign. However, in September 2002, a senior of Derech Eretz – owner of Highway 6 – was quoted in Ness’s Internal newsletter for clients.

“Israel has developed a unique answer to the question of billing”, said then Ehud Savion, Derech Eretz’s CEO. “a solution that will match the Israeli driver’s uniqueness in avoiding payment. According to the recent Highway 6 Toll Law, a driver that will not pay the toll will risk having his driving license not renewed. In extreme cases, Road 6 own private patrols now have the right to stop a car and confiscate it until the payment of the fine”. Ness’s system, Savion says, is called Real Time Enforcement.

Derech Eretz Road 6 management subsidiary is headed by Yehuda Vilk. Vilk left the Israeli Police general commander post in December 2000 to immediately become the Road 6 management corporation CEO. Before becoming Israel’s premier police officer, Vilk headed a national car insurance organization’s project of hooking up private companies into government computers and data – he was definitely the man for the job. The people who confiscate the cars, Highway 6 private security force, are also pros. They are headed by an ex-Israeli commando, and include SWAT-level professionals. The privatization tendency was taken to strange extremes in Road 6: from one month to the next, the chief of police is managing a ruthless operation beyond ordinary law.

The Highway 6 law gave rise to some strangeness. As the road opened to traffic, some Israeli citizens were stopped by the private police force and threatened with confiscation of their cars. Till end of 2003, there some were 800 of them. Some were arrested only because some bills didn’t arrive to their address, because of a car importer’s typo in the car documents.

As the Highway is relatively unburdened from the confines of the general legislature by grace of special legislation, justice on the road is swift and terrible. The complex system that surveys every car in seconds, sends minimal invoices to citizens, with no details of dates and road segments they drove in. The same system that has excellent connectivity with the ministry of transport, took ages to connect with the postal authority computers, to enable easy access to payments. If the invoices are in error, there is only a narrow room for appeals, and the first appeal must be sent to the company itself. Fines on missing the payment date for a 5$ toll on Highway 6 are going up to hundreds of dollars almost immediately.

This is possible because, strangely, parts of the Highway 6 legislation enjoyed a special “privatized” legal status. Some of it enacted in the fast lane, as regulations made by the ministry of infrastructure. One specifically peculiar detail is that the authority for the road – opened since 1999 – is fining people based on the 1996 cost of living index. This causes fines to inflate instantly.

The government agreed to, every year, pay the operators 80% of the projected traffic that didn’t materialize. How much would that be? Road 6’s CFO has, in November 2003, refused to volunteer any numbers – even to a parliament committee. After all, he said, this is a private company.

Perhaps this hidden cost of the road, so close to the occupied territories, has contributed in pushing the government advance its “separation wall” plans.

The Highway 6 law started out in 1995, allowing the private company special authority in confiscating land required for the road. While it endows the Road’s management the power to confiscate land with limited appeal options by residents – it still requires the company to register the land under the state’s name. After this privatization of land confiscation, it was only natural that later, the Road’s company received a de-jure “municipality status” as far as traffic signs go.

Highway 6 could be called “the Twilight Zone Road”. The military occupation manners made common in the occupied territories, have, it seems, spilled into the homeland in its immediate proximity. The Wall, erected to separate two ethnicities, touching Highway 6 in parts, could not shore the effect of military rule: disregard for democratic legislation procedures, accelerated confiscations, surveillance of citizens and field courts with limited appeal options that appear to be but a caricatures of justice. All this is going, in some years, to be handed over into the hands of the Israeli government.