Metrolinx and the Surveillance State

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Metrolinx and the Surveillance State

To live in a modern city is to live in a state of near-constant surveillance, unequally applied across vectors of race and class.

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Photo by David Williams in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Earlier this month, the Toronto Star reported that Metrolinx, the provincial agency responsible for regional transit in the GTHA, has been providing various police agencies with user’s data, at times without warrant and without notifying the user of the disclosure. The amount of data that Presto users were being compelled to give up had been raised as an issue before, by the Sun‘s Jenny Yuen, but it was not clear that police were being given access to this data, much less without the user knowing. 

While Metrolinx notes that they do not provide specific data, such as phone numbers, email addresses, and financial information, they do disclose usage information, which allows police to plot a rider’s movement over time.

In response to the initial Star report, Metrolinx has signalled their intention to review their privacy policy, but there’s a larger and more nebulous matter that Torontonians are being reminded of. That Metrolinx is providing user data to police should serve as a stark reminder that to live in a modern city is, in effect, to live in a state of near-constant surveillance, a surveillance unequally applied across vectors of race and class.

For racial minorities, this will be nothing new: as Desmond Cole’s continued journalism and activism (even to the point of losing his position as a regular Star columnist) has made undeniably clear, police in this city spent years amassing a repository of data, eternally tainted by its racist origins, that they are now stubbornly refusing to give up. To be a woman in this city—any city, really—is to be surveilled and, perhaps more perniciously, to be convinced of the need to constantly surveil yourself. This is, of course, to say nothing of the historical and ongoing surveillance of sexuality in this city. (For this endurance, 17 Toronto councillors voted to deny funding to Pride Toronto, lest they be comfortable marching alongside the very symbol of that surveillance.)

The revelations that Metrolinx is disclosing user data to police is evidence of a less-discussed target of surveillance in this city: the poor and working classes. To be sure, the policing and criminalization of poverty has always been an undeniable buttress to the Toronto surveillance state, but rarely is it discussed in such terms. (It would not be unfair, I think, to say that as activists in Toronto have found a full-throated language in which to speak about racial, sexual, and gendered inequality, the same cannot necessarily be said about class consciousness.) Amidst a larger trend of surveillance, poor and working class people—who are more likely to use transit, make up the City’s social housing services, and often rely on government assistance programs—give up small amounts of privacy each time; death by a thousand cuts, as it were.

I should stress that this is not a phenomenon that is unique to Toronto; indeed, the same could be said for just about any city in the world. London, for instance, has over 500,000 CCTV cameras operating at any one time; in 2015, Beijing bragged that it had built a surveillance network that covered the entire city. Rather, this is an issue that is one of city life more generally. And while we’re a long way off from London or Beijing—Toronto has somewhere around 13,000 CCTV cameras, according to one report—it is a reminder that surveillance happens in less obvious ways, too.

As the TTC moves towards full integration with the Presto system—eventually phasing out traditional fare media like tokens, tickets, and Metropasses—it is worth taking a moment to examine what this means in information terms. A Presto card, while it does not need to be registered and linked to identifying user data, is a far more useful piece of technology if it is. Case in point: I recently lost my Presto card, and was able to recover the 20-something bucks I had on there by logging on and transferring the balance to a new card.

But as the Metrolinx revelations show, there is a sacrifice of privacy implicit in this deal, that has gone worryingly unspoken, save for the fine print. The TTC, for its part, has distanced itself from Metrolinx’s privacy policy, with a spokesperson calling it “not within the TTC’s mandate,” in an interview with the Star. But, given that they have placed the future of their fare system in Presto, that distancing can only take them so far.

The salient point, when you drill it down, is not a knee-jerk reaction to demonize Metrolinx, nor area police for exercising the ability granted to them by Metrolinx and, to a degree, users apathetic or unaware of their own privacy sacrifices. But it is an opportune moment to reflect upon the degree to which the structures inherent in the operation of a city constitute a surveillance state by way of the services that are often used disproportionately by the working class in the city.

There are other examples, as well: A recent motion by Mayor Tory that was designed to cut back on crime in Toronto community housing (by banning those evicted for criminal behaviour from reapplying for TCHC housing outright) would also see their information—and any records associated with their eviction—available at future Landlord and Tenant Board hearings. While perhaps more benign and palatable, it is still part of a larger trend of information gathering and sharing, disproportionately working against marginalized people.

There are myriad ways that Torontonians are asked to relinquish their privacy rights on a daily basis. Some are more normalized than others—cell phone data, social media, etc. Some are less understood—like Presto data, for example. This should serve as a reminder that in an urban setting, class privilege often affords on privacy as well. Indeed, it is important to think of privacy as a privilege in its own right.

This, to be sure, is not going away anytime soon; our habit of freely relinquishing data is not likely to change, and nor are the structures that require an exchange of data for functionality. The answer, I think, is not necessarily in trying to change this system, per se, but to be aware of it. That is perhaps what is most frustrating about the Presto story—not that the data was being handed over, but that it was being done so opaquely.

And, if nothing else, we’ve learned one thing: Don’t be the criminal foolish enough to take transit to and from the scene of the crime.


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