New TransLink Cards: Keep Down Your Convenience Costs

Jan 08, 2008
Nicole A. Ozer

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

The Bay Area's transit systems are about to join other cities and get a single payment card. The TransLink card will let you pay for rides on BART, San Francisco Muni buses, and the Peninsula's Caltrain.

The new cards may help you avoid fumbling for cash or sorting through multiple fare cards. But, unless you want to also pay for that trip with your privacy, you should buy the TransLink card with cash at the terminals, rather than purchasing it online and linking it to your credit card for automatic payment.

If you link the card to your credit card, TransLink will have a record of who you are, where you go, and when you go there. According to the TransLink privacy policy, these records will be disclosed to third parties and the government when "required by law" or "ordered by a court of competent jurisdiction."

Government surveillance? Divorce cases? Negligence? Trade secrets?

Some people have been shocked to hear that automatic toll records have been obtained by a whole host of people in civil cases. The same is likely to be true of TransLink records.

Even if you don't link your transit card and credit card, it may nonetheless be possible for the information on your TransLink to be read by others and for them to track your movements and activities. The TransLink cards themselves use RFID tags, as well as an electronic contact chip, to transmit your data to transit systems.

RFID tags are tiny computer chips connected to miniature antennae. When an RFID reader emits a radio signal, tags in the vicinity respond by transmitting their stored data to the reader. If the RFID tags in TransLink cards turn out to be insecure, other people with RFID readers might be able to pick up the information on your card and track your activities without you realizing it.

While you'll still be able to use farecards on BART or cash on buses, there's no guarantee that TranLink cards won't become mandatory in the future. In Washington DC, a similar card called SmarTrip first became the only form of payment accepted at transit station parking lots. In November, the Washington, D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) announced plans to implant the SmarTrip chips into every Washington, D.C. driver's license.

In several metropolitan areas, cards that have begun as transit payment devices have slowly crept into other walks of life. In Hong Kong, 95% of the population uses an "Octopus" card not only for transit, but to pay for everything from groceries to parking.

The more these cards become a necessary fixture in day-to-day life, the more personal information will be stored and potentially shared with others.

Before you switch from farecards and cash to a TransLink card, it's important to weigh the costs and benefits. As convenient as it is to forgo cash while commuting, the amount of private information you're exposing to others might not be worth it.

For more on RFID, see Don't Chip Our Rights Away! by the ACLU of Northern California. For information about another new transit card system in Seattle, the Orca Card, and privacy concerns of the ACLU of Washington, see here.