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

Taylor Armerding | Oct. 16, 2015
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.

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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