Monday, December 17News For London

Privacy concerns as TFL and O2 track commuters’ movements

In an attempt to reduce rush hour traffic, Transport for London (TFL) and O2 are tracking the ‘mass movement of the population’ via smartphones.

Commuters outside Oxford Circus underground (photo: Upanishad Sharma)

Using anonymised phone signals provided by the telecom giant, transport chiefs are working with engineering firm Aecom and Jacobs to “better understand transport patterns across London” as the capital’s population is forecast to grow by two million to 10.8 million by 2041.

A representative from Aecom and Jacobs said: “The use of big data represents a significant step change” as the firm attempts to improve urban mobility. O2 says it scans 100 million aggregated and anonymous journeys nationwide each day.

TFL has previously tracked commuters using in-station wi-fi networks to reduce crowding during busy hours and on busier routes. They were previously unable to track commuters who did not use the station wi-fi.

The data will aid research for a future all-in-one e-ticket which can be used on multiple modes of transport including tubes, buses and cabs, allowing commuters to choose the fastest route.

A representative from O2 said that “it is very, very hard to reverse engineer”, meaning that it would be difficult to gain individual personal information from it. Despite this, some people have privacy concerns.

Shanay, a student at Westminster University, said: “I don’t like it. I think it’s a bit nosy to be honest”.

On the prospect of the data reducing her commute time, Shanay added: “They’re never going to reduce my commute time, realistically. I don’t think you can make the TFL system more efficient as it stands because there’s so many people.”

Inside Oxford Circus underground station (photo: Upanishad Sharma)

Big data has been big news in recent times and it seems that many people have accepted that they have to sacrifice their privacy for their convenience.

Sean, a commuter in Oxford Circus underground, said: “For the freedom that we get from technology, we have to sacrifice our personal data. For me, I have nothing to hide.”

A spokesperson from TFL told the Evening Standard that the data had been “depersonalised to remove information that could identify people”. Aecom and Jacobs say in their press release that the data is “anonymised”.

Still, some people remain wary of corporations using big data to access personal information. Sanjay usually commutes by car, but today he took the tube to Oxford Street for a meeting. “I usually turn my data off,” he said when asked about TFL and O2 tracking movement, but added that he does use public wi-fi.

O2 tracks commuters using network masts, so a user does not need to have data switched on for their movement to be monitored. The only way for a user to opt-out is to turn off their device.

However, Sanjay said that he supports the use of big data to ease congestion on the underground.

An Aecom spokesperson said that the use of customer data from the transport sector could lead to “greater economic competitiveness and growth, together with improved quality of life for residents”.