Transport for London to track passenger movement through Wi-Fi

The spread of free Wi-Fi across London’s Tube network has been picking up pace and providing commuters with a means of staying connected while they are travelling to and from work. And now Transport for London has revealed new plans to take advantage of this growing coverage, to get a better idea of how people move through stations, according to the Telegraph.

The month-long trial scheme will see the organisation attempt to track passengers’ movements in a more in depth manner than is currently possible. While people may be traceable as they enter and leave a station via their Oyster card or contactless payment solution, how they behave in the interim is something of a mystery.

This project will operate by harvesting the traces of data that any Wi-Fi enabled device will send to any of the routers with which it comes in contact. Because this makes individual smartphones and tablets uniquely identifiable, TfL will be able to spot where people are moving, based on when and where they are picked up by specific routers.

Crucially, the passengers will not have to actively log into the free Wi-Fi in order to be counted in the trial, but merely need to have wireless connectivity enabled on their device of choice while moving through the participating Underground stations.

Fifty four stations throughout central London will be covered in the initial trial, with TfL likely to roll it out more broadly across the capital if it finds that the results are useful.

Concerns about privacy and security have been raised, but the organisation has said that the information it collects on the movement of passengers will be entirely anonymised, so as to protect commuters from an especially overt form of surveillance. Furthermore, anyone who visits one of the stations at which monitoring is taking place will be alerted to that fact by signs put up in prominent positions, meaning they can simply disable Wi-Fi on their device if they are uncomfortable with participating in the trial.

TfL spokesperson and CTO, Shashi Verma, said that the information would be used to help improve the service offered by the Tube, giving organisers a better idea of how stations are being used, where problems may exist and what can be done to rectify them.

Verma pointed out that in the past it was necessary to survey individual passengers in order to get a sense of how stations are operating, which is a process that takes a lot of time and requires a significant amount of investment. So by comparison, the Wi-Fi data will be much cheaper to collect and provide more accurate, comprehensive conclusions about the matter at hand.

Anyone who chooses to use public Wi-Fi– has to strike a balance between the convenience it offers and the potential security risks it poses, since various attacks and malicious activities can be launched either against users of a particular network, or by the creation of phoney hotspots.

The fact that Tube travellers will actively have to opt out of the trial by deactivating Wi-Fi on their smartphones may be seen as an imposition by some, especially since plenty of commuters value being able to access the internet in stations where mobile network coverage is unavailable.

Plans to bring mobile networking to the entire Underground system, including the trains themselves, have yet to be executed, in spite of the fact that a number of other major global cities have already integrated this type of connectivity across their metro networks, putting TfL and London as a whole on the back foot.