British Police Using Transport Smart Card Details to Track Criminals

LONDON - Police in London are increasingly using electronic travel records from subways and buses to track the movements of suspected criminals, transport officials said Tuesday.

About 5 million people in London hold Oyster cards, smart cards used to pay for public transport journeys which record the time, date and location of each bus, train or subway ride made by a cardholder over eight weeks.

The cards, which were introduced in 2003 and can hold details of a user's name, are passed over card readers at subway stations and on city buses and trains.

Customers are offered lower fares in return for using the Oyster system, part of a commitment to phase out paper tickets.

In January alone, police filed 61 requests for smart card information, according to records released following requests made under Britain's Freedom of Information Act.

Police have asked for traveler information nearly 250 times from Transport for London, the city's transport authority, since the cards went into use. Those requests have been granted about 94 percent of the time, the records revealed.

"Each case is looked at individually, but such information could be used to build up a picture of a person's movements," the Metropolitan Police said in a statement.

Requests are only denied when a written request is incorrectly worded or the case against someone is not deemed to be "strong," said Amanda Brooks, a spokeswoman for Transport for London.

Brooks said in a statement that the authority did not allow "bulk disclosure of personal data" to law enforcement agencies or for "commercial purposes."

In 2004, police made only seven requests for Oyster card information, and human rights groups have criticized the increasing use of the records.

"Of course these records should be accessed by police to solve serious criminal cases, but this power cannot be used indiscriminately," said Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, a British civil rights group.

She said those who register to enjoy cheaper fares were unaware they were agreeing to "close surveillance."

In January, police used Oyster records during an investigation into the stabbing of 31-year-old city lawyer Thomas ap Rhys Pryce, who died following an attack at a subway station.

Officers discovered the lawyer's Oyster card was stolen and located a closed circuit television photo of one of the attack suspects by using the travel records.

[Associated Press WorldStream -- 03/15/06]