Clipper: Big Brother’s Best Friend?

|A BART Ride With Clipper|An example of how BART rides are recorded in registered Clipper users' ride histories, which can be obtained in court.

Where were you on the night of December 6? If you use a Clipper card on public transportation, authorities might not need to ask you.

Clipper keeps a detailed “ride history” for every registered cardholder. In the event of a civil or criminal investigation, that record could be handed over in court.

A ride history logs each date and time a Clipper user “tags” their card on public transit, along with the name of the transit organization and the fare charged. The specific route taken is recorded when available. If a user registers their card, their ride history is linked to their name and billing information.

Ride histories are available for registered card users to review online for 60 days, but they are stored in an archive for seven years.

Cubic Transportation Systems, a subsidiary of Cubic Corporation, a defense and transportation company based in San Diego, is responsible for the installation and upkeep of Clipper devices, fare gates and Add Value machines, as well as the storage of Clipper ride histories on its “Nextfare” central computer system. Cubic inherited a customer service center in Concord in 2009, when it took over the decade-old TransLink project developed by Vix ERG (formerly known as ERG) and Motorola, and re-branded it as Clipper.

Clipper and other transit card efforts have been big business for Cubic. The corporation earned $386 million from its transportation subsidiary in 2010, and credits a 27 percent increase in sales since 2009 to “work in the San Francisco Bay Area, London, Southern California and Sydney, Australia.”

Cubic Transportation Systems also manages the Go Card system in Queensland, Australia, where more than 1 million transit cards have been issued. In November, the Courier-Mail in Australia reported that “police were found to be using personal information about the owners of Go Cards to pinpoint the movements of suspects and potential witnesses to crimes.”

Cubic’s website states that the corporation is “committed to expanding and improving its Go Card System family of products — beyond the transportation industry — to meet the diverse needs of the defense and intelligence communities.”

“Our privacy policy prevents us from providing any information without a court order,” said John Goodwin, public information officer for the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). “I’m not aware of a single instance where that’s happened with Clipper.”

But as the transit payment system is only beginning to take off, it’s too early to say that Clipper records won’t become a popular subpoena item. On December 2, MTC announced that after a slow start, Clipper had achieved more than 300,000 daily boardings on Bay Area trains and buses.

FasTrak, the Bay Area’s more established bridge toll payment system, gets a court order “once every other month,” Goodwin said. Records have been requested for civil cases, such as divorces, as well as criminal cases to identify when an individual crossed a particular bridge.

What else do authorities and divorce lawyers look for in transit records? “You can look at the travel history and subtract everything that fits the normal travel history of that person,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. After identifying trips that are out of the norm, credit card records may be the next step to learn what the person did during those trips.

On BART, Clipper’s ride history provides fairly extensive information: the time and BART station an individual boarded at, and when and where they exited.

Muni’s current records are not nearly as comprehensive: A ride history shows only when a Clipper user boarded an “SFM bus,” with no route information listed.

That may change. At a recent board meeting, Muni CEO Nathaniel Ford said the agency is considering requiring riders to tag off just to obtain more information about where they’re going.

Transit agencies have access to Clipper’s statistical information, but not the identities of individual riders.  Goodwin said Clipper data is a way for agencies to “learn in greater detail about the travel patterns of their customers” and adjust service to better meet the public’s needs.

But the news from San Francisco transit providers is not as rosy. Spokesperson Mary Currie said that Golden Gate Transit is using Clipper data to plan its next fare increase. BART said it has little interest in data from Clipper.

“We already have one of the most sophisticated tracking systems of tickets anywhere,” said BART’s chief communications officer Linton Johnson. He added that it’s less efficient to access Clipper’s data, because “it goes through a third party to get the same information we already get.”

Tien prefers BART tickets to Clipper cards. “You can buy this little one-trip card, you don’t have to use your credit card, and it doesn’t know who you are. That proves it doesn’t need to know who you are.”

Once the implementation of Clipper is complete, Cubic expects it will become the largest regional transit card system in the U.S. Clipper is in service on AC Transit, BART, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit and Muni, and will be functional on VTA in Santa Clara Valley and SamTrans in San Mateo by February or March of next year.

For those who don’t trust the system, a Clipper privacy policy section called “Using Clipper Confidentially” states that if a customer does not register their card, “the system has no personal information about the cardholder.” Travel using unregistered cards is logged anonymously.

But the infrastructure of the Clipper system behooves its users to register.

The “autoload” feature, Clipper’s easiest payment option, is only available to registered card users. Autoloaded Clipper cards are essentially transit debit cards; fare is deducted from bank accounts or credit cards. Those who choose to not register their cards must use Add Value machines or go to a place where Clipper is sold to add money to their cards.

Because there are no Clipper Add Value machines in the Mission District, locals with unregistered Clipper cards have to visit Walgreens to add funds for fare.

Additionally, users who do not register cannot monitor their card activity online and have little recourse if their card is lost or stolen. Registered cardholders can download up to 60 days worth of their travel history in PDF format by selecting “check card activity” in their account on Clipper’s website.

Youth and senior riders’ cards are automatically registered by customer service when they prove their discount eligibility.

While the ACLU of Northern California has advised people not to register their Clipper cards, they admit that regional transit cards may be the way of the future: the New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles metro areas, among others, have all adopted card systems administrated by Cubic.

Vix ERG designed the TransLink/Clipper card system with Motorola after its first major success, Hong Kong’s Octopus card, which is used not only for transportation but also shopping, fast food and recreation facilities. Now run by Octopus Holdings Limited, Octopus cards came under fire this year for selling users’ personal information to insurance companies.

Despite privacy concerns, Muni riders who want to use discount passes will soon have no choice but to use Clipper. Muni will phase out all discount paper passes except its low-income Lifeline pass by March of 2011.

5 Comments

  1. pay cash. wear gloves and always always have an alibi

  2. Just a few comments. First, everyone needs to stop over reacting to the privacy issues. I think it is very unfortunate that the ACLU advises people not to register cards. I guess most of the clients that the ACLU has probably wouldn’t want to register their cards anyway. Using these cards to track criminals is kind of a stretch. There are also enough safeguards built in that in the event that there are any violations, they can deal with them on a case by case basis.

    As far as the tap on, tap off goes, yes, it would provide an additional layer of data to analayze if they did it this way. However, the trade off would be to have transit agencies add readers on the back doors and this would create a hardship for the smaller agencies as well as VTA and AC Transit that have bigger fleets. I don’t know if Muni has them on both doors of the buses. I know they have them on both doors on the PCC cars and the light rail cars. There are other techniques that could be used to track trips and yes, it would be a bit more complicated but it could be done.

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