Tube Tracking Lessons Learned [KitBits 17.3]

Gizmodo obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act relating to the tracking of commuters’ phones and other devices on the London Underground last November and December and did a thorough write up, complete with pretty heat maps and pictures. The whole piece is worth reading carefully, but here are a few points for anyone with access to such amounts of personal data who might be planning something similar (*cough* Dublin Bus *cough*).

If you want the public to buy in to your tracking, tell them about it. Tell them exactly what data you are collecting, where, when and for what purpose. This is the law, but is far too frequently overlooked. Data is people in this case, after all.

Go to great lengths to inform people. Don’t make a half-hearted attempt, because trust is one of the key currencies in this transaction, and if you lose public trust then your project will fail and this failure will impact negatively on future data gathering projects. In short, design a bloody big poster and put up lots of them where people can see them. Don’t send out notifications that people confuse with takeaway menus and chuck in the bin (this is a thing that actually happened with the now-shelved health data project in the UK.)



Tell people how to opt out of this tracking. There’s no evidence that Transport for London made this explicit in their communications. It seems that switching off WiFi on their devices would have been sufficient in this case. So a black mark against TfL for that omission.

There are some limited insights at the end of the story on how this project and other potential tracking by the transit authority was perceived by those being tracked.

it revealed that customers are much more okay about sharing data when they feel that they are making an “informed decision”, and that many people are “apprehensive” about mobile tracking, because it is so new. The sharing of location data in particular is “viewed differently” to other private information too.

Many data gathering  and processing projects have both benign and malign uses to which the information acquired can be put. Most people are quite willing to participate to some degree in a project they see as benefiting themselves and the greater good of society in some way. In the case of this TfL project more enlightened planning decisions can certainly be made to alleviate crowding in Tube stations.

Advertising rears its head here, because where there’s personal data there are always advertisers sniffing around. As is also quite typical, sharing the gathered data with advertisers to allow more detailed profiling and targeting of individuals is presented as a revenue opportunity which can be used to pay for some of the benefits which may accrue. If you don’t like those ads which follow you around the internet you’re probably not going to like the ones which will follow you around the commuter network.

Finally, note the greatly increased profiling power of combining different information sources. Since TfL controls the Oyster Card information, the WiFi tracking information and also the Rolling Origins Destination Survey data it “was able to demonstrate how on one journey southbound down the Victoria Line they were able match the wifi data of one passenger and figure out which specific train they were travelling on.”

[Image credit: Andrew Ridley on Unsplash]

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