Saturday, December 19, 2009

Seattle Area transit cards record where and when passengers travel

Expanded use of a regional transit card in four Puget Sound counties is raising privacy concerns.

The ORCA card can be used to pay for rides on buses, trains, boats, streetcars and vans in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties. But a report in The Seattle Times warns that the cards record where and when those passengers travel.

That information is available upon request to employers who subsidize the cards for their workers. About 2,000 companies and institutions offer such subsidies.

Lee Tien, senior attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, says he doesn't understand why transit agencies actually need the enormous amount of trip data ORCA generates. He said San Francisco's BART works just fine with a magnetic stripe card that doesn't record locations.

Individuals who don't get their ORCA card from work may also have privacy concerns. If they register their card to protect against loss or theft, their personal information goes into the transit-agency database.

ORCA - an acronym of One Regional Card for All - is a card that riders use like a debit card, tapping it against an electronic reader as they get on a bus, train or boat. The cards either have cash balances that are spent per trip or are used as a flat-rate monthly pass. Card sales began in April, and ORCA will gradually replace 300 kinds of transit passes and paper transfer slips.

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