How to opt out of creepy Wi-Fi tracking on the London Underground

Transport for London has gone live with its controversial Wi-Fi passenger tracking tools designed to help customers avoid congestion.

Announced in May, the City of London-run transport body is leveraging the Wi-Fi beacons present in our smartphones to help station staff glean a better understanding of the state of the network in real time.

The new trial will last for a month, across 54 stations, with TfL saying it could also help it to timetables more effectively.

While this could eventually result in passengers receiving congestion updates on their phones, there are naturally some privacy fears over the hijacking of the consumer’s technology to produce the crowd-sourced data without them actually opting in.

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In fact, the only way to opt out of trial is to turn their Wi-Fi connectivity off while travelling on the network. TfL says it will put signs up at the revenant stations in order to inform consumers of the option.

That’s hardly the ideal situation, considering the Wi-Fi network installed on the tube offers commuters the benefit of connectivity far below the London streets. The way TfL is using the beacons within our smartphones – which continually search for new networks to potentially join – means passengers don’t even need to be connected to the Wi-Fi network in order to be tracked.

For what it’s worth, TfL says “individual customer data will never be shared and customers will not be personally identified,” while the data that can’t identify you will be kept on file for two years. There’s also the spectre of use for advertising purposes to deal with here, because TfL plans to use the data to sell ads based on footfall. You sense that could actually be the key motive here, but that’s just conjecture on our part.

Lauren Sager Weinstein, TfL’s chief data officer, told the FT, the provider was “mindful of the responsibility” of tracking users’ locations with care. “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,” she added.

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