TfL To Collect Commuters Wi-Fi Data From July

Commuters on the London Underground will have their mobile Wi-Fi data collected from July as part of a system deigned to help improve journeys and ease overcrowding.

Transport for London (TfL) announced the collection of “depersonalised Wi-Fi data” will only be used to provide “better, more targeted information to its customers as they move around London, helping them better plan their route to avoid congestion and delays.”

London Underground stations tend to have good mobile coverage. And ever since 2012 there has been Wi-Fi connectivity on the Tube, and there are now more than 260 Wi-Fi enabled London Underground stations.

Data collection

“The depersonalised data collection, which will begin from 8 July 2019, will look to harness existing Wi-Fi connection data … to understand how people navigate the network,” TfL said.

“The system, which has been developed in-house by TfL, will automatically depersonalise data, with no browsing or historical data collected from any devices,” it said.

TfL pointed out that in 2016 it had conducted a four-week long pilot to test Wi-Fi data collection technology across 54 stations within Zones 1-4.

The trial collected Media Access Control addresses from commuters devices, and then “automatically depersonalised” them before the data was analysed by TfL’s in-house analytics team to help understand where customers were at particular points of their journeys.

Indeed, that trial apparently collected more than 509 million depersonalised pieces of data, from 5.6 million mobile devices, which TfL said helped it improve journeys.

“For example, analysis showed that customers travelling between King’s Cross St Pancras and Waterloo take at least 18 different routes, with around 40 per cent of customers not taking one of the two most popular routes,” TfL said.

TfL seems to be understanding the potential privacy issues, and said that it has worked closely with key stakeholders and the Information Commissioner’s Office to ensure privacy concerns and transparency were actively considered and addressed.

It said the benefits from this data harvesting will start to become apparent later this year, and would better route planning, overcrowding alerts, and giving both TfL staff and outside developers, businesses and academics access to the data to create new products and services.

TfL said that clear signage, based on TfL’s current signs about the CCTV, will shortly be installed.

Customer who not want their data to be collected can turn off the Wi-Fi option on their devices.

“The benefits this new depersonalised dataset could unlock across our network – from providing customers with better alerts about overcrowding to helping station staff have a better understanding of the network in near-real time – are enormous,” explained Lauren Sager Weinstein, Chief Data Officer at Transport for London.

“By better understanding overall patterns and flows, we can provide better information to our customers and help us plan and operate our transport network more effectively for all,” Sager Weinstein said.

Privacy concerns

“While I am excited about the potential of this new dataset, I am equally mindful of the responsibility that comes with it,” Sager Weinstein added. “We take our customers’ privacy extremely seriously and will not identify individuals from the Wi-Fi data collected. Transparency, privacy and ethics need to be at the forefront of data work in society and we recognise the trust that our customers place in us, and safeguarding our customers’ data is absolutely fundamental.”

The issue of privacy was picked up by a security expert from Tripwire.

“It is important that these mass-collections of data are monitored and regulated,” explained Paul Norris, senior systems engineer EMEA at Tripwire. “There is nothing inherently risky in collecting information that will help improve the logistics of operations, but customers should be informed that a certain type of data will be recorded and asked whether they wish to opt out.”

“This will likely happen through an additional disclaimer to which users will have to agree before they can connect to the public Wi-Fi,” he said. “How the information is stored and who can access it is also something that needs addressing: as our ability to monitor one’s every step increases, it is essential that individual privacy remains at the forefront of any organisation’s priorities.”

“To edge on safety and safeguard their privacy, users should consider using a VPN anytime they access a public network,” said Norris.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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