Under the new system, Transport for London will be able to track a commuter’s movements and it plans to retain information on journeys made for “a number of years”

Each card has a unique ID number linked to the registered owner’s name, which is recorded together with the location and time of the exchange every time the card is used.

The data, retained for business purposes, could be released to law enforcement agencies under certain conditions.

Anyone hoping to use a monthly or annual season ticket will have to register their details with Transport for London, although anonymous cards will be available to those willing to pay per journey.

The civil rights group Liberty told BBC News Online that commuters should be able to opt out of the system if they had privacy concerns.

How it works

The new system uses the Oyster smart card, which Transport for London began distributing to commuters in the summer.

The smart card is ‘contactless’, meaning customers do not have to insert their cards into a card reader.

Instead, the new card must be quickly placed on top of a reader and does not even need to be removed from its holder to work.

A small amount of data about the commuter holding the card, including a unique ID number, is stored on it.

When the card is presented at a tube station or on a bus, the ID number, together with information including the location and time of the transaction, is sent from the card reader to a central database.

In time, Transport for London have a database with the exact movements of a significant number of the people who live or work in London.

‘Journey planning’

But those behind the scheme were keen to stress that the information is being held for business purposes.

“It’s not so much about the individual. It’s about understanding passenger travel better”, said John Monk of the Oyster project.

“The fact that the card belongs to a given person is irrelevant, to some degree, until we try to provide customer service for that passenger.

“But if someone were to lose their card, you would want to be able to trace it back to them in order to replace it.”

Mr Monk stressed that Transport for London are only collecting the data to “improve the journey planning process.”

“The information has to be retained to allow tracking across the system, to tie the journeys made on an individual travelcard together.”

Data that can identify people’s movements is being held locally for eight weeks, according to Mr Monk, to allow reports to be produced, and then “archived for a number of years.”

An anonymous pre-pay card will be available early in 2004, but Mr Monk added that customers would not be able to buy season tickets, for example, until they had personalised the cards.

“People who don’t trust the technology can still come on board, and when they feel comfortable, they can register and get all the extra benefits that will bring.”

Anyone unwilling to register their details with Transport for London will be at a financial disadvantage.

The cost of a year’s travel in central London with a season ticket is £660. Anyone commuting to work on a pre-pay card, making 10 journeys a week, will pay a total of £832.

‘Function creep’

In the UK, people’s movements are already indirectly tracked in a number of ways. Mobile phone companies keep records of the location of their customers for a number of years, while the number plates of individual cars on the public highway are read and recorded by a number of different organisations.

Law enforcement agencies can gain access to stored electronic data of this nature, and Mr Monk admitted it was “likely the information would be used for court evidence.”

Such information is a boon to those seeking to combat crime, but many feel that people’s privacy is undermined by this kind of monitoring.

“All too often we have seen data collected for one apparent purpose, only for it to end up being used for something entirely different”, said Mark Littlewood, campaign director of civil rights group Liberty.

“We will be monitoring the situation carefully to ensure that this sort of ‘function creep’ doesn’t occur in this instance,” added Mr Littlewood.

“If anyone wishes to store information on people’s journeys for their own planning purposes, they should at least ensure that travellers are fully informed of this.

“It is also important that people have a right to opt out of the system.”

A spokesperson for the government body which looks after data protection issues, the Information Commissioner, stated that there were valid commercial reasons for holding the data, but that it was important that Transport for London did not misuse the information gathered.

Whilst these privacy concerns currently only affect commuters in London, the country’s other major transport companies are working on a smartcard scheme which could have similar implications for commuters.

More here.