Anonymous travel is dead. Even for subway riders who still use tokens and people who bicycle around town, the proliferation of cameras, facial recognition technology, biometrics and RFID tagging will render anonymity obsolete within a generation.
I believe the public’s next battleground is to gain control over what happens to our data, and how it’s used. Right now there is very little transparency. Transportation organizations are collecting a lot of information about people, and there is very little public input or disclosure regarding uses, length of storage time, or standards for securing this data.
Boston’s MBTA, for example, does not consider the CharlieCard’s serial number to be personal information, and it therefore reserves the right to store rider histories associated with each card indefinitely. Even when CharlieCards are obtained “anonymously” (not the majority) they can
always be linked to the financial transactions database which also stores the card serial number (ie. if you even once pay with credit card, your CharlieCard is not anonymous any more). The specifics aren’t publicized; this is information I obtained by doggedly calling the MBTA’s IT department.
I believe the public should have the following rights:
- Transportation organizations should be required to publicly disclose what data is collected about individuals, and how long that data is stored.
- Disabled people and senior citizens should have access to the same level of privacy as everyone else. (Right now in Boston, they cannot obtain a CharlieCard without having their personal information and photograph associated with the card and permanently stored by the MBTA.)
- The public should have regular input on how long personal data is stored and how it is managed.
- Individuals should be able to easily find out who has accessed their travel histories and the purpose of disclosure.
- Transportation organizations that store personal data should be subject to regular external audits to ensure that they are in compliance with standards, and that they have implemented appropriate measures to secure personal data. A summary of these results should be made public.
Personally, I don’t want to have a history of my travel stored in any database. Right now, purchasing a one-time CharlieTicket is a 30 cent surcharge per ride, but it is the only way to take the subway in Boston without creating a travel history. Privacy in public transportation should be equally accessible to all citizens, regardless of financial resources.