By Christian Stafford, news correspondent

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) has rolled out a pilot program to track riders’ movements in certain train stations using Bluetooth beacons. The technology is generating privacy concerns among riders.

The tracking data will help the MBTA improve communication with its customers, fine-tuning service alerts as well as offering advertisers additional opportunities to reach customers based on their proximity to certain beacons, according to MBTA spokesman Jason B. Johnson.

“The MBTA is interested in learning how this technology may be used to help the agency improve communications with its customers,” Johnson said in an email to The News. “This advertising initiative has the potential to benefit MBTA customers who may be interested in one product or service over another. Titan, who is managing the program, is the T’s advertising contractor. The MBTA benefits when Titan continues to increase ad revenue.”

The pilot program is taking place in 10 stations: North Station, South Station, Park Street, Harvard Square, Back Bay, Kenmore, Downtown Crossing, Copley, State Street and Kendall Square, Sheridan said.

Titan worked with the MBTA and Intersection, an urban and user-experience design company, to develop the new program, according to the Sept. 25 press release announcing its start.

The beacon technology communicates with riders’ smartphones via third party applications, according to the press release. Riders must download an app – neither MBTA officials nor the press release specified which one – and opt in to data collection before the user’s phone will communicate with a beacon.

While Bluetooth beacons can be a boon for advertisers and an experience enhancer for users, the use of tracking technology invokes a set of ethical questions, according to Northeastern professor of computer and information science Guevara Noubir.

“Beacon technologies… have the potential to provide more targeted and timely services to the users, in particular better communication regarding location specific events,” Noubir said. “I assume that it can help inform users about delays, alternative routes, and emergencies in a selective way – without overwhelming the users. [But] all location-based services raise privacy concerns.”

Users’ personal information will not be recorded by the beacons, and usage is voluntary, Intersection spokeswoman Abbie Sheridan said in response to questions about privacy concerns.

“It’s important to remember that no personally identifiable information will be collected through this program,” Sheridan said. “Beacons operate in a transmit mode that’s similar to GPS: they cannot see, collect or store any personal data or consumer information.”

Despite assurances from officials, students expressed mixed feelings about the technology.

“I don’t necessarily think privacy would be a problem for the general public since they don’t have to use it if they don’t want to,” Connor Quinn, a senior mechanical engineering student at Northeastern, said. “[However], it’s also worth noting that while the beacons may not record and store information, there may always be a way to access other information on consumers’ devices directly, so that could be an issue.”

Sophomore English major Rachael Swift, in contrast, believes the trackers are just one of many sources collecting people’s data, and worrying about the privacy implications of any of them on their own is pointless.

“It kind of reminds me of similar things that already exist as far as tracking places you’ve been,” Swift said. “On one hand, it could be useful; on the other hand, there is part of me that would like to protest on potential privacy issues, but considering where we are with info sharing in general, it’s beyond that point by now.”

In the minds of some, however, companies like the MBTA have no right to track users’ movements. Joseph Cohen, a 20-year-old Suffolk University business student, dismissed the need for the beacons.

“I ride the T every day, multiple times a day, but they don’t need to know where I am,” Cohen said.
The true concern for riders may not be the tracking technology itself but the ways in which user data could be commoditized, according to Yakov Bart, a Northeastern University professor of marketing.

“Potential ethical problems might arise if, for example, the MBTA decides to find additional revenue by partnering with some retailers and stores,” Bart said. “Because the MBTA would have access to consumer information and location, consumers could start receiving ads from those partnered businesses, targeted on their location, because they are being tracked by the MBTA.”

As the program is currently designed, privacy concerns may be overblown, Noubir said. He noted that proximity beacons are already used in some retail stores to offer shoppers discounts and coupons when they approach a store, an arrangement which he said hasn’t eroded users’ privacy.

“If done correctly, in a transparent and verifiable way, and with the appropriate security guarantees, users should be able to enjoy new services without increased privacy invasion,” Noubir said. “The beacon technology that the MBTA is considering seems to take security seriously – although it is hard to know the full privacy implications without considering the specific services to be deployed, and how the collected data is processed, stored and shared.”

Photo by Scotty Schenck