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Contactless Transit Fare Systems Provide Convenience, but at a Cost to Privacy

By Rachel Looker 

Transit systems from Atlanta to Seattle have been implementing contactless or touchless payment options to increase convenience and allow riders to board buses or trains with minimal contact because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While these payment systems have provided convenience for many riders, it raises concerns over the privacy risks with the mobility data collected, experts tell Digital Privacy News.  

“You’re creating a lot more datapoints, because each time that you’re tapping into a system, it’s telling potentially private companies where and how often you’re using the system,” said Tom Pera of TransitCenter, an organization that works to improve transit to make cities more sustainable.  

Pera, a program associate for the New York-based group, said using touchless systems to collect fares raised privacy issues for the public and private sectors.  

“On the public-sector side, it’s that you have a lot more of this data-collection, potentially by public agencies,” he told Digital Privacy News. 

“The concern now is that it’s often not explicitly made clear to riders or passengers the other agencies that that information can be shared with.” 

Smart Cards Widely Used

According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) in Washington, 6,800 organizations in the United States provide public transportation.

In the association’s 2019 Public Transportation Fare Database, a survey of nearly 500 participating transit agencies revealed that 91 bus, light-rail, commuter bus and commuter rail services use smart cards.

“You’re creating a lot more datapoints.”

Tom Pera, TransitCenter.

APTA defines such cards as having a magnetic strip with a small computer chip.

Thirty-nine of those 91 services use open-payment systems, which accept contactless credit or debit cards, mobile phone payments or other contactless payments, according to the database.

Last year, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in the District of Columbia said that Apple Wallet could be added to its SmarTrip card to create an even more touch-free experience for riders in the region.

Riders still can buy a SmarTrip card with cash at local kiosks, but registering it requires some personal information.

According to WMATA’s privacy policy for metro digital services, if users agree to share their location, either online or on a device, the agency may aggregate anonymous location data “to better understand how people are using these location-enhanced services and later improve those services.”  

Cards in Philly, New York

In the Philadelphia area, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) began phasing out paper tickets last fall — implementing the SEPTA Key Card.

Riders can use Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay to reload and purchase fare cards.

In New York City, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) introduced its One Metro New York (OMNY) system in 2019, where riders can use a contactless credit card or smart device to pay for bus and train fares.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) in Manhattan, said COVID-19 had brought a level of surveillance — from contactless payments to exposure-notification apps — that had not been witnessed in the U.S. for decades.

“Even though they’re often sold to the public as temporary measures, they can easily become a new permanent layer of surveillance infrastructure for the economy and for the country overall,” he told Digital Privacy News.

How They Work

According to Pera, who authors TransitCenter’s “Do Not Track” report on data-collection by fare systems, many touchless systems involve a transition from closed-loop payment systems to open-loop structures.

Closed-loop fare systems — using tokens, punch cards, swipe cards, and even chip-enabled “tap” cards — allow transit agencies to control the fare media and dictate how data is managed.

Digital wallets or near field communication (NFC)-enabled credit or debit cards use open-loop payment systems, Pera explained. They involve third-party payment methods that provide companies with more information on when and where individuals travel.

He noted the distinction between smartphone-based systems and open-loop systems such as OMNY, which involves a third-party payment medium, like an NFC credit-card or digital wallet.

“Open-loop systems may rely on smartphones as payment media, but not all smartphone-based systems are open-loop payment systems,” Pera said.

While not all contactless fare options use open-loop systems, he said that it was important to still provide riders with the option to pay fares in cash.

Too Much Tracking

Cahn said OMNY was increasing the amount of personal data being captured and transmitted.

“We’re increasingly becoming a city where between automated license-plate readers on the streets, facial recognition and now OMNY — there’s really no way to navigate the city unseen,” he said.

More data-collection means more vulnerabilities for riders, specifically from state actors like police or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as from hackers and other unauthorized parties, Cahn added.

“When I think about potential misuse,” he told Digital Privacy News, “I think about what happens if lots of people go to a protest — and they know not to have their cellphones on, and they don’t want to be tracked for fear of retaliation.

“Still, at the end of the day, police can track many of them by just looking at the times they enter the subway station.”  

Privacy Policy Issues

Cahn said OMNY’s privacy policy left open the opportunity for data to be handed over to authorities via court order.

OMNY’s policy states that the MTA “uses personal information collected as we believe necessary or appropriate to comply with applicable laws, lawful questions and legal processes, such as to respond to subpoenas or requests from government authorities.”

Additionally, Cahn said the OMNY policy did not indicate how long information was retained, describing it as the mass-transit equivalent to the controversial planes that provided surveillance for the Baltimore Police Department.

“The longer this data is allowed to accumulate, the more attractive it will be for misuse by government agencies,” he said.

“Even though they’re often sold to the public as temporary measures, they can easily become a new permanent layer of surveillance.”

Albert Fox Cahn, Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

Cahn also cautioned against transit agencies implementing a “privacy tax” through contactless fare systems — essentially penalizing riders who choose to pay with cash to protect their anonymity.

“This is about communities really questioning if this is how we want to build the infrastructure of our future,” he told Digital Privacy News.

“Do we want exclusionary infrastructure that tracks our neighbors and puts many of them at risk or do we want infrastructure that is accessible and welcoming to all?”   

Rachel Looker is a Washington writer.