back to article TfL to track Tube users in stations by their MAC addresses

Transport for London is to start a four week trial of reading Wi-Fi connection request data from London Underground passengers’ mobile phones. The trial, which will last four weeks from 21 November, “will help give TfL a more accurate understanding of how people move through stations, interchange between services and how …

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  1. Scott 26

    Have WiFi turned on as you enter the Tube station, and then turn it off in the middle of your journey - enough people do this and it'll look like commuters have simply disappeared into the rail network somewhere.....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Have WiFi turned on as you enter the Tube station, and then turn it off in the middle of your journey - enough people do this and it'll look like commuters have simply disappeared into the rail network somewhere.....

      Until the Oyster ID or Underground ticket ID that was logged at the same time as the WiFi MAC address shows up at another exit, of course, at which point they'll have a nice video of the individual who has by then been marked as suspicious.

      That's the second problem: you don't really know what ELSE they will use this data for because the last time a government department decided to break the law regarding data collection they simply retrospectively changed the law. Now they've gotten away with it once there's every reason to suspect they will do that again..

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "Until the Oyster ID or Underground ticket ID that was logged at the same time as the WiFi MAC address shows up at another exit,"

        Unless they are going to add special, very short range WiFi APs at each turnstile, then is simply not going to happen other than those rare times when you are alone in the station. Or do you think VM provided multiple clever WAPs which can triangulate your position and "see" when you pass through the turnstiles rather than the cheapest kit available?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Unless they are going to add special, very short range WiFi APs at each turnstile, then is simply not going to happen other than those rare times when you are alone in the station. Or do you think VM provided multiple clever WAPs which can triangulate your position and "see" when you pass through the turnstiles rather than the cheapest kit available?

          There are only two barriers to implementing a full surveillance network: budget, and anyone leaking that it is happening. Budget isn't a problem if you look at just how much money is absorbed by agencies, and anyone leaking that this is happening is now alleviated by the fact that these technologies are built publicly, so it's hiding in plain sight - after all, you don't know exactly what ELSE they do with the technology.

          So yes, I can see turnstiles being "upgraded" over time, ostensibly to offer new ways of paying but also quite capable of other things less talked about.

          Am I paranoid? Well, yes - that's the unfortunate price of knowing how technology as well as governments work..

  2. toby mills

    Nothing new

    This isn't anything new or unique. Lots of places do it, mainly shopping centres etc. to track footfall and use it to calc rates, congestion and more. Cisco, HP, Huawei all offer this out the box.

    Without logging into a Wi-Fi you can be tracked down to 9 metres. When logged in that drops to around 1 metre.

    And no, most people don't turn their Wi-Fi off.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Nothing new

      I do. I turn WIFI, mobile data and bluetooth off. Bluetooth never gets turned on and the other 2 only get turned on when I want to use them, then get turned off again.

      The primary reason is so that my phone will last for days on a battery charge. A nice side effect is that I can be less concerned about apps doing sneaky things and shit like this.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Airplane mode underground....

    I switch my phone into that when going down the tube (Deep level lines) just to save the battery.

    Sod TfL. There is no way that they are going to track me on the tube. They already get enough of my data via the Oyster Card.

  4. kryptylomese

    WiFi tracking is possibly a bit too invasive and not accurate

    The offering from the company below does not reduce privacy and is far more accurate at detailing where people, are and in what numbers, and how quickly they are moving through an area (it is what a lot of airports are using and this technology was used at the Hajj to reduce the risk of injury to the huge number of people there):-

    http://www.crowdvision.co.uk/

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: WiFi tracking is possibly a bit too invasive and not accurate

      The offering from the company below does not reduce privacy

      Well, they use Google. That's your red line, right there.

  5. Eeep !

    Why are they measuring?

    Whenever I'm in the metropolis there are shed loads of Oyster card users. They are giving up info about entry and entrance to the underground system. And if you have an Oyster card I'm guessing you are fairly knowledgeable about the optimal routes through complex stations.

    I don't know if 1 day travel/capital type and normal (single / return) type tickets can be tracked in some way so perhaps they are are only indicating general numbers through stations, not station to station journeys.

    Perhaps this helping with measuring flow around large stations once you are outside the actual barriers.

    Wonder if they are considering having coffee and sandwich shops inside the system (barriers) for those that are waiting, but only know they are waiting after passing through the barriers. That would suggest the possibility of trains being delayed until enough mocha-latte had been purchased.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why are they measuring?

      What they are measuring is how you move through the station and which stations you change at by following the MAC address via which Access Points it connects to.

      The Oyster card/ticket is only logged when you enter one station and leave another so they don't know what route you actually took to get there.

      1. Tom 38 Silver badge

        Re: Why are they measuring?

        What they want to know is how users are transiting the network. Currently, they could see a user got in to the underground in Liverpool St and got out at Paddington, but they have no idea whether they took "Circle Line clockwise", "Circle Line anti-clockwise", "Hammersmith and City", "Central to Oxford Circus, then Bakerloo", "Central to Notting Hill Gate then District", "Circle to KX, Piccadily to Earls Court, Circle to Paddington" (wouldn't recommend that one)...

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wouldn't the tracking be better off by using the Oyster/Contactless payment of entering and leaving the station??

    1. edge_e
      Holmes

      Re:Wouldn't the tracking be better off by using the Oyster...

      That tells them where you joined and left the network.

      It doesn't tell them which route you took, whether you missed your stop or if you met up with a mate in Richmond as you made your way from Euston to Victoria

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What a complete load of bull.

    You buy a ticket at point A and go to point B with a start time.

    You use your card and start at point A and go to point B with a start and end time.

    They already have all this information. You can quite easily combine the above with train and tube times to work out the route take.

    This is neither necessary or useful, in fact I would say it would confuse things because of the strength of WiFi signal and whether the device gets registered at each point.

    Now if I put my patented tin foil sailors hat on I would surmise that this along with free WiFi on busses is another way for the guberment to track people and where they go before they enact the 1984 protocols and enslave mankind to a bleak totalitarian future where everywhere you go and everything you see is recorded and analysed for purposes of submission to our lizard overlords. You have been warned citizen.

    1. Tom 38 Silver badge

      You use your card and start at point A and go to point B with a start and end time. [...] You can quite easily combine the above with train and tube times to work out the route take.

      Utter bollocks.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Really? So you don't understand basic analysis.

        Point A 10am

        Point B 10:30am

        Options

        Train 1 10:05 to point A1 at 10:15

        Train 2 10:20 to point B at 10:25

        Train 1 10:15 to Point A1 at 10:25

        Train 2 10:30 to Point B at 10:35

        So which option did I use? Obviously the first one as I would not have made it out of the station at 10:30.

        Combine the above with the actual times of the trains and there you go, a nice easy way to get this information.

        I will concede that within London Underground there are sometimes many options for a journey on different lines and if you don't know what you are doing you could potentially end up with a longer journey (though as an analyst it rarely happens to me).

        So again the question remains, how useful is this data and why do they want it?

        I also questioned free-WiFi on busses, nothing is free so whats the cost? Am I to believe the bus companies are on an altruistic mission to connect their customers to the internet? Most people have mobile data anyway but are stupid enough to see the big "Free" sign and take it.

        1. Tom 38 Silver badge

          I understand basic analysis just fine, but I also understand that people do not all move at the same speed, urgency or efficiency. Nor can you always get on the first available train.

          The error bars on transit time through the stations are sufficient to make it mostly not possible to identify the route a user takes. With your simplistic basic analysis, you cannot tell if someone took a slower route, had to wait for a train with enough space to board, requires assistance walking...

  8. Codysydney

    On the face of it I have no problem with this, but the analysis performed would be limited to fairly mundane pathing around a station. I visited London and some of the stations were less than straight forward to navigate.

    But the real juice would be being able to map this data to demographic data, that's where some real valuable marketing analysis could happen. If I were running this system I'd be looking for every way I could (legally) get clues about who you are - not as an individual but as a marketing target.

    E.G. if your device checks in with an access point in the men's room, thanks now I have your gender :)

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "E.G. if your device checks in with an access point in the men's room, thanks now I have your gender :)"

      What about trans{various types}? Isn't that making assumptions and probably discriminatory? Sue someone!! Profit!!

  9. alain williams Silver badge

    It will be tapped by GCHQ

    Theresa May's snoopers' charter is now well on the way to being law by Xmas. It TfL is providing Wifi then it will be deemed an ISP and thus the data collected must be kept for a year. Web site addresses at first, but expect 'feature creep' in this law (or just plain - share it with us: you have a nice tube network there ...) and they will get the lot.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: It will be tapped by GCHQ

      "It TfL is providing Wifi then it will be deemed an ISP"

      It's run run by Virginmedia, so the WiFi system is already an ISP and all the data goes via the GCHQ black boxes on the VM network.

  10. Clive Galway

    Anyone care to explain how a MAC can be "de-personalised"?

    Yeah, right, hash the MACs and call it "de-personalised", that's not gonna help you if the spooks already know your MAC and the algo it was hash with.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Underground tours

    WFT takes a scenic tour of the tube on a daily basis? Tourists and the like take all kinds of routes, but when I travel from Paddington to Charing X, I'm not going via South Ken, unless TFL have made a horlicks - again. As for Charing X, I really enjoy the walk up and down to Trafalgar Sqr, in the cold and pissing rain, to get on the tube.

    This is a data grab, probably sponsored by Goggle.

  12. Gecko

    Anonymous mac

    It is my understanding that most modern phones now Amanda's their mac addresses when negotiating with access points - specifically to stop shopping malls etc from tracking them. This will also apply to the underground network. They won't see the same device id entering and exiting. They'd better check this before they invest too much.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Realty bites

    What I'd really like to be thinking is "Excellent use of data to improve the transport network", but of course this isn't la-la land, so what I'm actually thinking is "yeah, yeah, when do we get to the bit about '... share with trusted 3rd party partners to provide more relevant advertising'". But wait...

    ".. TfL also hopes to use this data to get higher prices for advertising spots at busy areas inside Tube stations."

    Not quite, but doubtless they'll get there in the end. How long before turning wifi on at all is a bad idea?

    Utterly depressing.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    THX1138

    Citizen, you have disabled your wifi....come with us.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    That's not how it works

    Tracking a device by slurping up the beacons it makes whilst looking for WiFi hotspots does not expose any data being transmitted by said device. As such, no you cannot identify the user, their emails, their web browsing habits, their home address, etc.

    If however the device data is sold/passed to others who do happen to have such data, then yes de-anonymisation can happen.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: That's not how it works

      "Tracking a device by slurping up the beacons it makes whilst looking for WiFi hotspots does not expose any data being transmitted by said device. As such, no you cannot identify the user, their emails, their web browsing habits, their home address, etc."

      You missed the bit where the data is being collected by the company running the WiFi service so if you use that service, yes they can identify emails, browsing habits etc and work their way to the rest of it.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Changing MAC address

    What happens if I change my MAC address every second?

  17. Jonathan Richards 1

    My usual question...

    ...when I read stories like this. Has anyone done a Privacy Impact Assessment [ico.org.uk] for this project? And then the followup questions: If so, then may we read it, please? Alternatively, if not, then why not?

    At the very least, a PIA would indicate some detail around the otherwise hand-waving assertions about achieving anonymity.

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