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Transit smart cards worry privacy watchers

TransLink
TransLink's new Compass smart card payment system is coming to Metro Vancouver's transit system in late 2013.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

Privacy advocates want stronger assurances that TransLink's new Compass card system won't become a tool for police to track transit riders.

Starting later this year, passengers will start paying with the smart cards, which must be tapped against readers at the start and end of each SkyTrain, bus or SeaBus trip.

TransLink says the identity and credit card information on users will be kept in a secure database separate from the one that collects data on their movements, which planners will use to refine bus routes and scheduling.

B.C. Civil Liberties Association policy director Micheal Vonn said it will be tempting for police to try to get information from TransLink on the movements of suspects.

"Who else is going to have the data?" Vonn asked. "When you build a tracking system all kinds of people will be interested in the information. Police, obviously."

Vonn wants to know how easy it will be for TransLink to match the identity of the cardholder in one database to their transit riding patterns in the other and under what circumstances might that be turned over to authorities.

"People should have a right to be freely anonymous in their travels unless there's a very, very good reason they shouldn't be."

Michael Madill, TransLink vice-president of enterprise initiatives, agreed police might want data on a transit user if officers found a Compass card at a crime scene, or perhaps to identify suspects or witnesses who entered a SkyTrain station around the time a crime was committed there.

"We would cooperate with the police – obviously that's what we would do," he said.

"They would have to follow the same protocols for that information as they would to get the video data from our video cameras that we have all over the train and bus system."

TransLink has for years turned over surveillance video images to police investigators, provided there's a formal police file number and other procedures are followed.

TransLink is working with B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner on how Compass card data should be handled, Maddill added.

A rider's identity will only be recorded if they opt to have their Compass card registered, he said.

It will be possible to use a smart card anonymously without registering it and reload money on it at transit station kiosks.

But Maddill said a registered card will be more convenient for many people.

A registered Compass card that's connected to a user's credit card or bank account will automatically reload itself to a preset level when the cash on it runs low.

And a registered card that's lost or stolen can be reported and TransLink will deactivate it and transfer the unused balance to a new card.

"We want people to take advantage of that," Maddill said. "But if someone chooses not to because they're worried about privacy, that's up to them. They can still load value on the card anonymously at machines."

Although the $170-million smart card and faregates project is expected to reduce fare evasion, most of its financial benefit is projected to come from much more accurate data on transit use that can be used to adjust the system, saving money while serving more riders.

Police in places like London and Australia make regular use of transit smart card data to solve crimes.

Stringent limits are required, Vonn argued, or else police here could make highly intrusive use of such a system – not just in extreme cases like a terrorist bombing on the transit system, but potentially to track and intercept protesters en route to a lawful demonstration.

"We have intelligence-led policing which is increasingly interested in the tracking of ordinary law-abiding folks," she said.

Vonn noted B.C. police forces intended to make broader use of licence plate data from car-mounted cameras until the privacy commissioner ordered changes.

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