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FOSTER: Digitization of transit will lead to further unjust criminalization

Column: Techsploitation

There is a digital revolution happening on the rails of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and it may pose a massive threat towards the privacy and safety of the city’s public transit. 

Like other Rutgers students interning in New York, I rely on the subway to get around the city. In the past few months, I have seen the station near my workplace go through some interesting changes. Namely, the recent construction and activation of fare payment systems. 

One Metro New York (OMNY) presents a new way to pay to ride the MTA. Instead of buying a MetroCard and loading it using cash or card, stations with OMNY terminals allow passengers to pay and swipe through simultaneously by tapping their phone or contactless card on the OMNY screens attached to the turnstiles. 

While it is only currently available on MTA buses and a select number of subway stations, OMNY’s full rollout is set for completion in 2023, upon which MetroCards and eTix will be phased out. 

Contrary to what the MTA claims, this is not a sign of advancement or progress.  

This is an act of continued surveillance and exclusion imposed upon New York City’s most vulnerable communities. 

OMNY was developed by the for-profit corporation Cubic Transportation Systems, the same company who currently manufactures MetroCard vending machines. It is also the developer of other fare-collecting systems, such as Florida’s "GO Miami-Dade Transit" app, which allows travelers to earn transit value by engaging with advertising content. The MTA is now paying Cubic $539.5 million for OMNY, which the company says will ultimately reduce costs for the MTA.

In light of the MTA’s grievous mismanagement and the recent increase of police presence in subway stations, this hefty contract with Cubic is a bit of a spit in the face for protestors in New York who are currently calling for low-cost, accessible and safe public transit. Furthermore, this win for the MTA spells out even more danger for travelers within the city, as it compromises both the security of their information and their safety from invasive policing. 

OMNY will provide the MTA with an “unprecedented surveillance capacity,” as it allows them to gather sensitive data on riders with nearly no limitations on what or how much they can collect, as is outlined in their intentionally vague privacy policy, according to a report from the New York-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP). 

This includes personal information such as a person’s name, mailing address and when and where users enter the subway system.

Unless a traveler uses cash to buy a prepaid card or OMNY card (which are not yet available), location data on their travel habits are subject to tracking through their use of the OMNY app, or even through their credit card or smart device. Although this data is anonymized, it is been proven to be relatively easy for programmers to tie anonymous data back to the people who generate it. Once you use OMNY, your transit information no longer belongs to you, but is instead held indefinitely within Cubic’s databases. 

OMNY’s privacy policy states that people with an OMNY account are able to access their travel and transaction history for 90 days, but does not specify for how long Cubic and the MTA will retain that data. Cubic and the MTA have failed to respond to questions about how it plans to protect OMNY’s user data, which is increasingly at risk for misuse the longer it remains within their system.

Furthermore, this is not just about where data is held, but also where it is going. “storing rider data for longer than necessary to process a transaction raises the alarming possibility that the MTA and Cubic intend to … make New Yorkers’ data readily accessible with minimal usage restrictions to law enforcement and other government actors,” according to STOP. 

This possibility is closer to reality than most would find comfortable. OMNY’s privacy policy states that “the MTA uses your Personal Information as we believe necessary or appropriate to comply with applicable laws, lawful requests and legal processes, such as to respond to subpoenas or requests from government authorities.” 

In other words, the data it collects is not just visible to Cubic and the MTA, but potentially also the New York Police Department, the CIA, the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Communities who are already the most vulnerable to overpolicing and unjust criminalization, such as undocumented immigrants, are now even more exposed. 

“Given the NYPD’s history of discrimination,” states STOP’s report, “gaining access to OMNY … would undoubtedly mean that New Yorkers of color, immigrants and other minority groups would be disproportionately targeted.”

Right now, travelers still have the option to use a MetroCard instead of OMNY, but come 2023, that choice will be eliminated, leaving New Yorkers subject to tech that surveils them under a transit system primed to criminalize them. 

OMNY’s website claims that it “believes that transportation is an essential service that connects communities and brings the diversity and energy of New York together.” 

In reality, though, it seems more interested in spying on New York than connecting it. 

Cameron Foster is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies. Their column, "Techsploitation," runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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