Clipper cards should protect users’ privacy

With the technology we use these days, there are numerous ways in which we all leave behind a digital trail.

In many instances, there are opt-outs to the information we give. For social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, there are lengthy privacy policies that have evolved due to concerns — or failures by the companies — about personal information that is shared. Privacy policies typically allow users to adjust down to a granular level the amount of information they are willing to give and share publicly.

Other technology, such as smartphones, can be used to track people’s every move — an area of technology that is evolving faster than laws that control access to such information. As it stands in state law, there are limits to the amount of information that can be collected using devices for toll roads and bridges, namely the statewide FasTrak system. But cellphone, tablet and GPS device data can be readily accessed by police officers without a warrant. A bill by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, to stop this practice was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Adding to the mix of unregulated location information are the payment cards used on Bay Area transit systems such as BART and Muni. Clipper cards have been adopted by transit agencies throughout the region, and they do add simplicity for users who ride several systems during their commutes by allowing balances from multiple transit systems to be held on one card.

But buried in the card is a gold mine of information. A recent article by The Bay Citizen highlighted three instances in which subpoenas were issued and, in two of the cases, information was given about a person’s travels.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional transit planning body for the Bay Area that also manages the Clipper card, said it would not turn over information except for when a subpoena is issued.

There is no need to ask the agency for a person’s travel information, though.

All one needs is a smartphone running an Android operating system and the application FareBot. According to its description, FareBot can access the balance on a card and recent travel information. It is unclear whether a police officer could use this app to check on travel information without a warrant, but it seems abundantly clear that this is a gray area of the law that should be firmed up.

The MTC said riders do not have to register their Clipper cards, which is done to add value to them with credit cards. Paying cash to reload the balance allows for users to remain anonymous, according to the MTC. But there is no way for people who have registered the cards to stop the system from tracking their travels.

It is not enough for the MTC to say that riders have an all-or-nothing choice for privacy. Many riders will want to keep their cards registered and linked to a credit card for the simplicity of payments. There needs to be an option for users to block the tracking of ride history as well.

The onus for privacy should not fall completely on the user, as it does currently. The MTC needs a better system that allows for increased privacy without having to totally opt out of a convenient way to pay for public transportation.

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