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Transported: Clipper Card Privacy Issues?

photo via raider3_anime on Flickr.com

Welcome to "Transported", our weekly series about getting places in San Francisco, whether you take the bus or the BART, bike or drive. Come here to find the skinny on secret parking spots, the new bike lanes and how to get across town on Muni without losing your mind.

Just as the SFMTA, BART and five other Bay Area transit agencies are forcing the Clipper Card switch upon all riders, the San Francisco Examiner brings to light some interesting privacy issues surrounding the new card.  All your daily transit movements could be easily tracked through the Clipper's embedded chip, exposing a what state Senator Joe Simitian worries is an accessible "roadmap to your life."

If you've opted to be able to recover your Clipper value on lost cards or set up the Autoload feature, you probably provided a bunch of personal information that could theoretically be obtained by hackers or used by law enforcement agencies (the Examiner article cites the practice of divorce lawyers subpoenaing FasTrak info to prove infidelities because it is so specific). When registered riders use their cards on buses or at fare gates, their personal data is immediately linked to the data gathered by Clipper Card scanners.

All personal info of registered users is overseen by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. However, Senator Simitian maintains that "the MTC does not have a good track record of maintaining privacy." None of the info they ask for is encrypted or collected anonymously. BART also collects riders' personal information in a similar way with its EZ Rider card. Both BART and the MTC maintain that it is not required for riders to register personal information.

Senator Simitian, extensively quoted in the Examiner article, is authoring a bill to extend state privacy laws to motorists who use FasTrak (which is also controlled by the MTC) that will go into effect in 2011. But as for now, no law of this kind applies to those who ride public transportation. However, a spokesman for the MTC insists that as soon as FasTrak is in tune with state privacy laws, the Clipper system will soon follow. Let's hope so.