January 28, 2006

Say No To Change

Filed under: analog — mhoye @ 9:35 am

From Boing Boing:

Many times, intrusions into privacy like this are excused on the basis that they offer discounts in exchange for your personal information. This is true with the Oyster card, too: a single ride on the tube costs £3 now if you use a paper ticket, but with an Oyster card the journey is as little as £1.30. The thing is, before they ramped up Oyster card use on January 1, the cost of a paper single was also as little as £1.10 — in other words, they nearly tripled the cost of an anonymous journey and then told everyone that you got a great discount if you used the privacy-surrendering means.

They do this in Ottawa, too, albeit with paper passes and not with RFID technology. The RFID stuff is kind of neat, and I suppose that some malicious administrator could use it to track specific people, but if the description in the article is correct, it wouldn’t be terribly useful as the tools of oppressive states go: Cory says “With one of these, you could zap your card when it runs out of stored money and trade it for a new one that will have a different serial number and consequently not be associatable with your previous card”, but who cares if it’s associated with your other card? What matters is, is that card associated with me, somewhere other than my pocket. Either the card points at you, or it doesn’t – the new card, when you get it, will either point at you again, or it won’t.

The reason that there’s such a dramatic difference between cash fares and tickets or passes is not because the system wants you to give up your privacy – it’s because the system wants you to not pay cash. For individuals, carrying cash is not a huge problem – it’s a few bills in the wallet, and a handful of coins in our pocket. If the coin situation gets unwieldy, any merchant will gladly change it into a five or ten dollar bill.

For your local transit authorites, not so much; our bus service has to shift, count, deposit and just generally cope with several tons of change every day, a process that’s difficult, expensive and not exactly, as you might imagine, airtight or precise. And Ottawa isn’t nearly as big a city as London. Pricing tickets well below the cost of cash fare can mean significant economies for the transit system, and with a little foresight your taxpayer citizen pays a much cheaper fare.

There are privacy implications in this stuff, to be sure, but to believe that dog-tagging the citizenry is the prime motive for all these things is, well, wrong.


  1. I agree that cutting costs is the prime motivator for such a system; I’m not sure, though, whether Cory was implying otherwise. And even if the card is not tied to you at the time of purchase, there are many ways to link it to you at a later point (stealing/confiscating your card, correlating card access with video surveillance, …). If you’ve had the same card for years, there’s the potential to get a lot of data this way.

    Your is broken, BTW, and ironically my browser takes me to the homepage when I click on it.

    Comment by Nikita — January 28, 2006 @ 11:12 am

  2. I think its a bit naive to think that the London Underground authority, which spends a huge amount on policing and surveillance didn’t have a checkmark for the ability to track offenders in the “advantages” column when evaluating the RFID cards.

    Probably also naive to think that the police won’t attempt to use that system. Which, if fighting crime, is OK in most people’s mind. The real issue that many people fail to understand is that the definition of crime changes over time. Now it’s mugging or vandalism, later it’s things we would currently consider free speech, etc. Once these systems are in place, it takes something like a complete overthrow of power to remove them.

    Comment by Amos — January 28, 2006 @ 11:26 am

  3. Thanks, Nikita, I’ve made the change.

    Amos: all of that is true, but that’s not what Cory said. He’s described a straight up money-for-privacy exchange. In an article that’s about building what’s basically a derringer HERF gun, to save you three pounds on a replacement card. This is not a practical social protest mechanism or a good use of one’s sticking-it-to-the-man time.

    Also: I don’t think that it will take a complete overthrow of power to get those systems pulled, if there’s enough popular demand. All they have to be is too expensive to keep using. A real protest will be underway when people start HERFing the card readers, not the cards.

    Comment by Mike Hoye — January 28, 2006 @ 2:11 pm

  4. Totally agree what the primary motivator is, and I think the huge difference in costs between tickets and cash here in town shows it.


    The UK isn’t exactly known for giving a rat’s ass about the individual if it protects the public. I’m not saying this is what it’ll be used for, but here’s a hypothesis:

    – Known drug area is near tube stop “X”
    – Traffic analysis shows multiple repeat trips that end at tube stop “X” from a variety of riders at a specific time during the week
    – Hypothesis: a proportion of the riders are potentially visiting area to purchase from known drug area
    – Using data accumulated, the local law enforcement tags several repeat traveller’s IDs for an operation at a time where the potential for bang for buck exists (i.e. peak times for buying whatever)
    – Upon exiting from the tube, tagged passes let operations personnel know exactly where and when a tagged card is
    – Operation follows holder of tagged pass and, if they go into the drug area and come back out right quick, chances are they have a buyer.
    – Multiple options/ways to go from there.

    Now, I’m not saying this is what would happen, but I can think of a number of ways to analyse data to correlate it to illegal activity and get busts that way. It’s a risk of the system at large, and while I’d like to think it wouldn’t be used that way, I’m not convinced it won’t.

    No tinfoil here, just it’d be a great way to start taking a look at where folks go for blow.

    Comment by kev — January 28, 2006 @ 4:54 pm

  5. 90% of New Jersy residents convicted on Law and Order have their car’s tunnel/bridge transponder records used against them on the show.

    Jus’ sayin.

    Comment by Quotation — January 28, 2006 @ 6:03 pm

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