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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.

red line mbta subway boston
Credit: Michael Hicks

Big Conductor could be watching you … but only if you want him (or her) to.

That, of course, is not the way a press release a couple of weeks ago put it, announcing the launch of a pilot program by private contractor Intersection to track riders’ who are using the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) system in 10 of its stations in Boston and Cambridge.

The pitch from Intersection, an “urban experience” company created through a merger of media company Titan and technology firm Control Group, is that the program’s goals are to improve the rider experience and to help companies that advertise with the MBTA “increase engagement and interaction with commuters” who are near to their stores – targeted ads, in other words.

This will be accomplished through what Intersection says is, “a secure, closed network of Gimbal Bluetooth Smart beacons,” that will collect no personally identifiable information (PII), since they are, “transmit-only Bluetooth low-energy devices that send out a signal that can only be used by user-enabled apps running on mobile devices to trigger location-specific content.”

The company said riders will be tracked only if they, “download an app that utilizes the technology and opt in, to allow the app to receive the beacon’s signal.”

Gimbal, in a prepared statement, emphasized not only the anonymity of the program, but the choices to riders, who can disable it by turning off location services or Bluetooth on their phones.

The company said it is TRUSTe certified and a member of the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF).

All of which sounds like no surreptitious invasion of personal privacy, since even those who agree to be tracked will remain anonymous.

Not necessarily, according to a number of privacy experts, who say the announced safeguards are too vague to guarantee anonymity.

Privacy and encryption expert Bruce Schneier, CTO of Resilient Systems, said in a world of increasing surveillance by both the private and public sectors, this program probably ranks on the low end of the risk to privacy, although “it depends on the details.” But he said it is difficult to preserve anonymity when downloading an app.

“Can you get into the iTunes store without a credit card?” he asked. “I can’t.”

bruce schneier
Bruce Schneier, CTO, Resilient Systems

Others are more emphatic about the privacy risks. Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, said even if the beacons don’t collect any data, “it’s unclear to me what the app does with any information it collects. Unless that’s made clear, those who volunteer won’t have done so in an informed way.


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