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Big Brother has his eye on us at every toll road

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THE GOOD OLD DAYS: Many motorists thought nothing could be worse than the toll plaza - but they've been proved wrong

THE GOOD OLD DAYS: Many motorists thought nothing could be worse than the toll plaza - but they've been proved wrong

THE GOOD OLD DAYS: Many motorists thought nothing could be worse than the toll plaza - but they've been proved wrong

The parents were worried about the whole barrier-free tolling thing. And who could blame them?

There were dire warnings, fines and even jail threatened if you didn't organise yourself properly. There were tags, registrations, a bewildering array of 'operators' to choose from, different charges, scanners, shops to pay in, credit cards to use -- it's no wonder that people are still confused.

For an older couple not used to using the internet and worried about even entering the M50 just in case their blemish-free reputations would suddenly be taken into question for non-payment, I decided to manage the whole process on their behalf.

I already have a tag, being a long-suffering resident of the M50, but they were used to paying at the bridge, handing over their carefully counted out coins to someone in a booth.

Online registration, along with electronic gantries, video snapshots and automatic tolls were all new and worrying experiences. Never mind, I said, I'll register for you, get the tag and you can forget all about it. Online, it meant the simple task of registering the car, rather than the owner. To do this, you input the registration number. Imagine my surprise when the screen automatically brought up the make, colour, year and model of the car.

This must be what's it's like to be a cop, I thought. Then I put in my own. Yep, lo and behold, there it was. I could make one up and see what kind of car it was. What fun this could be! Or not.

expensive

Since then of course, the thing has been an unmitigated, and extraordinarily expensive, mess. You'd imagine even the NRA could have planned things a bit better.

First of all, if the equipment is capable of reading number plates in the first place, why have tags at all? I've seen other commentators ask this, with no satisfactory answer. Secondly, it simply cannot be that difficult to find sensors which collate accurate information. Other countries manage it with ease, and yet thousands of our motorists are finding themselves charged for crossing the Liffey Valley when they were in Bundoran or Tullamore or Gorey at the time. Try proving a negative.

Then 40 staff left the complaint desk because, er, they were getting too many complaints. Now the even more irate callers are hanging on for hours waiting to explain that they were charged in error.

details

Now, it seems that my little unintentional foray into hacking other people's car details has backfired spectacularly. The NRA is being investigated by the Data Protection Commission after it was discovered that anybody can find out the personal details of anyone else whose car failed to register.

When you get a naughty letter the day after you allegedly (and the word is used loosely) used the road, there's a reference number that you enter into the website to find out the when, where, who etc, before you complain, in case it was the wife, or the brother in the car, perhaps.

But the numbers aren't random, they're consecutive, which means that by fiddling about with the digits you could -- with a bit of a sad life like mine -- find out who went before and after you. Complaining, one motorist said he was "intrigued" by how much personal information came up, including names and addresses. He admitted he was "no IT genius", but many are -- imagine the havoc someone with a less than honest approach could take.

We're constantly told to mind our personal details, shred letters, not share banking information, be careful what we put in the recycling bin etc. All this against the backdrop of laptops going missing with medical information, social security details, bank account numbers, from Government departments, or from absent-minded civil servants' cars.

protection

How could the NRA not have tested their own system or not been mindful of the requirements of data protection? We're constantly being hit by internet scams from Nigerian Princes to dodgy pyramid schemes. We often wonder where these people get our details from. Well, the NRA have just made it a great deal easier.

As a show of goodwill (yes, it's a real word, NRA, look it up), they should immediately stop charging motorists until they sort their own mess out. If they cannot run the system properly, it should be given to someone who can.