(Very) Public Transport

Tyne & Wear Metro are soon to introduce their smartcard system for twenty-first century travel. It's your very own personalised doodah. The privacy bit from their terms and conditions states that Nexus - a private company - holds this data about pop card holders: title, first name and middle initial if you've got one, surname, address with postcode, telephone and email (if you provided them), date of birth (maybe - it depends) and a photo, if you have a photocard.

The enthusiasm for it is positively rampant. Plonk "pop card" and tyne into google and you get pages and pages of links directly from nexus and other north-eastern business sites, the council, etc. If one didn't know any better one might suspect a bit of SEO was going on there to maybe flood out any criticisms or privacy concerns being raised. But that would be wrong.

It's not stated how much of your personal information is on the actual smart card, but if you're using it to manage payments then there must perforce be some kind of unique identifier on it. After all, they wouldn't want to be charging the wrong person.

It's used at the metro station ticket gates on both entry to, and exit from, the platforms. Thus a season ticket holder is now trackable, in a way they were not hitherto. The system knows (because it has to check if your card is valid) where and where you are whenever you pass through one of their gates. So I asked them the obvious question:

What if you don't want your boarding or disembarking times and places made available to newspapers or jealous spouses or private detectives or police or other dodgy characters? Will season ticket holders have any private/anonymous alternatives to pop cards? Only arskin', like.

Naturally, I have nothing to fear from such information being available to anyone else. Within an hour or so - they're nothing if not prompt on their own facebook page - I get the response:

Hi Paul, smart cards are no different to mobile phones and bank cards in this respect. There is no circumstance in which newspapers, spouses or private detectives – or in fact Nexus staff – could get hold of data from an individual Pop card that would allow them to track someone’s movements. It is technically possible but there are very strict rules in place from Government, framed through the Data Protection Act, that make it an offence. The police can use warrant powers to trace use of a smart card, as they can a bank card or mobile phone, in order to pursue an investigation.

Now I'm not sure how mentioning other cases of anonymity violation (over which the modern functioning citizen has virtually no choice in complying with) helps ameliorate concerns, but they did bring it up, so I'll just mention that I do know people who don't use bank cards or credit cards for precisely this reason. Such folk (I'm not one of them) must take their privacy pretty seriously to tolerate such inconvenience, but that's their choice. And as for tracking devices that let you make phone calls, it is still possible to have a life without one on your person all of the time.

And I'm sure there are strict rules about access to that information. I'm equally sure that all police are honest and that nobody could ever bribe a Nexus employee to check up on somebody. We all know that the line 'you owe me one' only ever turns up in movies, not in real life.

A few minutes later they added:

If you have concerns about this you can purchase tickets using cash from a ticket machine. Four-weekly and annual season tickets will only be sold onto personalised products, giving customers the benefit of being able to cancel and replace lost cards.

Which at least answered the question I'd asked, in a moderatley straight talkin' fashion. So I thought, as a favour, I'd respond with a concluding recap:

So the answer to "Will season ticket holders have any private/anonymous alternatives to pop cards?" is a 'no' then. Okey Dokey.

At the moment it's still possible to travel from A to B anonymously. Soon, unless you have your own private transport, it won't be. Most folk won't care. As Nexus (more or less) say, it's all just another brick in the wall.