Tracking is no longer just on the rails for Boston's MBTA

The advertising contractor for metropolitan Boston’s subway rail system is launching a program to track riders with smart beacon technology. The company emphasizes that it is voluntary and anonymous, but privacy experts are not convinced

kelsey finch

Kelsey Finch, policy counsel, Future of Privacy Forum

Devlin said that is a crucial distinction. “Every device has multiple identities related to the device itself, the carrier, the network interface, the network address, etc.,” he said. “Once collected, such data can potentially be joined with other data to build a more complete profile of an individual that is not anonymous. And suddenly the customer becomes the product, and someone else becomes the customer.”

That last point resonates with others, including Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America.

She noted that if riders respond to marketing solicitations generated by the app, “that provides information about what the device users buy, how much they pay for things, etc.”

She said it is clear to her that, “this is really not so much about helping people find their way, it’s about increasing the MBTA’s ad revenue.”

Herold said privacy claims without specific details are, “a common marketing gimmick to spin the story away from the privacy issues and instead get their targeted users to see it as only something good.”

She called it “a huge red flag,” and said the public should start demanding that app and smart device developers, “build in effective privacy protections, and also provide objective privacy impact assessment results to validate their claims.”

Kasunich said there are a number of ways besides advertising that the program could help riders, including offering audible directions to the visually impaired, opening elevator doors when someone using a wheelchair approaches or providing alerts when elevators are down or routes are changed.

She said as the program develops, it could help T officials analyze, “anonymized crowd and flow patterns, entries and exits and passenger counts. These data could ultimately help the MBTA understand how to optimally allocate resources at highly trafficked stations, strengthening customer service for riders.

“Another potential use case, which isn’t in place today, is that riders could also be pushed important messages that are related to their journeys, including delays, service alerts, reroutes and wayfinding.”

Those latter benefits might make the program worthwhile for riders, said Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and an expert in privacy and adware.

He said there are other ways, already in place, to track how riders use the system, but if the program could provide, “tailored commute guidance, it might be useful.

“Such as: ‘Train is coming – if you walk on the escalator, rather than just standing there, you’ll make it and save 6 minutes,’ or ‘Snow on the tracks on your usual route – delays likely – consider alternative X instead.’”

But, as Kasunich said, those kinds of services are not in place. And privacy experts note again that if riders are getting “tailored” information, that means the program is not entirely anonymous.

The MBTA’s Johnson said only that, “If Intersection’s efforts increase non-fare ad revenue, then that is of benefit to the T’s customers.”

Devlin said good privacy principles include, “notice, choice, access and security.” And he said the program does provide notice and choice, since it will only track those who download and use the app.

But, he said that, based on the announcement, “the notice is vague as to exactly what is being collected and how it will be used after collection, and there is no access provision for individuals to see their own data.”

Finch said FPF has written an explanatory Guide to Beacons to help users decide if, and how, they want to use them.

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