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Charles Fassbender walks through the first SkyTrain fare gate installed at the Marine Drive SkyTrain station in Vancouver on Aug. 13, 2012.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

Privacy advocates are voicing serious "big brother" concerns over TransLink's $170-million electronic fare system being implemented this year.

The regional transportation agency will soon require transit users to tap a prepaid "Compass" card against a smart-card reader each time they enter and exit a city bus, SeaBus or SkyTrain in Metro Vancouver. When this happens, an electronic chip inside the card will collect passenger travel data that TransLink will use to assess the efficiency of its system and determine the distribution of transit resources.

TransLink maintains that passengers' personal information – names and credit card details – will not be stored on the card. Instead, that information will be kept separately in a secure "back-end" system.

"TransLink's planning department, for example, wants to look at all the transaction data to see how many people are getting on-and-off a bus or on-and-off at a station at what times of day, and they really don't care who those people are," said Ian Wardley, a TransLink consultant with the Compass project.

But Micheal Vonn, policy director at B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said it is "ludicrous" to accept that Compass cards contain a mechanism that tracks usage, but not users.

"We are now tracking things that have never been tracked before and the ability of law-abiding people to find themselves within these systems is concerning," said Ms. Vonn. "It's pretty clear if they're planning to track the card then they must be building in the architecture to figure out who it is and what they're tracking."

Ms. Vonn said the Compass card could fall victim to "function creep" much like Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems.

In 2006, a handful of police departments in B.C. began equipping unmarked squad cars with infrared cameras capable of recording the licence plate numbers of parked and moving vehicles. The information gets compared to a database containing the license plate numbers of lost or stolen vehicles and vehicles belonging to known criminals. Police are notified when there is a "hit." Last November, B.C. Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham released a report expressing concerns over the potential for ALPR technology to collect and store "non-hit" data, leading to unregulated surveillance of law-abiding citizens.

TransLink's Compass card is designed by Cubic Transportation Systems, the same company that developed London's renowned "Oyster" card. While English privacy laws differ from B.C.'s, numerous media reports indicate that the London Metropolitan police regularly request passengers' Oyster travel data to aid criminal investigations.

Richard Smith, director of Vancouver's Centre for Digital Media who has studied privacy and public surveillance, said there is always a possibility that databases can be abused. However, if TransLink's Compass system is "appropriately designed, if the rules are appropriately crafted and the operation is appropriately managed, then it should be possible to keep that information effectively not personally identifiable."

However, Dr. Smith added there is little an organization such as TransLink can do to withhold information from law enforcement, in which case "the safeguards really lie in law and oversight."

TransLink is a public body subject to valid information requests from law enforcement and to B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act.

B.C.'s Privacy Commissioner will complete a privacy-impact assessment of the Compass program in the coming months.

Transit users who wish to remain anonymous can purchase and add value to unregistered Compass cards by paying with cash.