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Police Still Secretly Tracking TransLink Riders? Yes, Even More

Two years after sparking a provincial probe, Tyee finds practice has grown.

By Bryan Carney 12 Apr 2019 |

Bryan Carney is director of web production at The Tyee and reports on technology and privacy issues. You can follow his very occasional tweets at @bpcarney.

What happened after The Tyee exposed that TransLink increasingly was handing over data about its riders to police without informing customers or requiring any warrants?

That was in August 2017.

A follow-up Tyee investigation finds police tracking of TransLink riders has since intensified.

And a probe by B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner triggered by The Tyee’s report quietly wrapped up four months ago without telling the public or resulting in any new safeguards.

The fact the data sharing continues without any moves to protect riders’ privacy or ability to know is “tremendously disappointing,” said Micheal Vonn, policy director for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

But TransLink emphasized that the province’s investigation concluded the transit authority broke no laws by secretly sharing customers’ information with police.

TransLink’s data can reveal to police, without the rider’s knowledge, their name, email address, phone number and every trip taken with a Compass card or fare purchased from a kiosk with a credit or debit card.

In July 2017, TransLink responded to a Tyee freedom of information request saying it had received 132 police requests for such information, granting 82. The number of times law enforcers sought and received such information had risen since 2016. In the whole of that year, police had made 147 requests and were granted 111.

In 2015, The Tyee learned, TransLink fielded only 16 such requests, granting 10.

The Tyee’s report published Aug. 8, 2017, noted there was no independent oversight in place to weigh the police requests, nor were riders informed their data was shared.

The same is true today, even as TransLink gives more rider data to law enforcement.

In 2018, TransLink received 342 requests for personally identifying data about transit riders and handed the information over 133 times.

In 2017, TransLink received 310 requests from police and granted it 182 times.

Meanwhile, a 16-month provincial investigation by B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner into TransLink’s sharing of personal info concluded last December.

TransLink spokesperson Jill Drews said the commissioner’s investigation found TransLink was not in violation of privacy law.

The privacy commissioner’s office did not respond when The Tyee asked if a public summary of the investigation was made available. The Tyee searched for one online, finding nothing.

A spokesperson for the privacy commissioner told The Tyee that TransLink has committed to producing a “transparency report” by July 2019.

The company will now annually release the number of times it shares data with law enforcement, said TransLink’s Drews. However, no numbers have been released to date.

Drews did not provide any other changes in policy the company is adopting.

However, while police requests have grown compared to several years ago, the rate of approvals has dropped. So far in 2019, only 17 requests out of 84 have been granted, an approval rate of just over 20 per cent. In 2017, the approval rate was 59 per cent and in 2018 it dropped to 39 per cent.

582px version of PastedGraphic-1.jpg
Number of annual police requests (red) for transit rider identities and trips taken, against the number of those that were granted (green) since TransLink began tracking them in 2015. Image by Bryan Carney.

Still, because there are so many more police requests, last year TransLink shared riders’ data with police 13 times more often than in 2015.

The BCCLA’s Vonn said that promises TransLink will be more transparent do not adequately address the ongoing threat posed to riders’ privacy.

“What kind of signage would be appropriate?” she asked, offering: “‘Translink — disrespecting your privacy, now with greater transparency!’” 

“We had every reason to believe that TransLink was going to respond with policy changes when this story first broke,” said Vonn.

To hear no policy changes are in the works, she said, is “tremendously disappointing.”  [Tyee]

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