The CTA last month quietly tested controversial geolocation technology, currently used by stores and restaurants to alert passersby—via smartphones—about deals at the businesses. The transit agency is looking at how this technology can be used to give riders bus and train tracking information.
Titan, the CTA's advertising broker, installed Bluetooth-enabled sensors called "beacons" in 40 locations near 11 high-traffic rail stations in a two-week pilot last month, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said. Titan removed the sensors, but the CTA is planning another pilot of the technology later this year.
The beacons, powered by San Diego-based Gimbal, have come under fire recently. New York City officials removed the sensors from 500 pay phone booths earlier this month because Titan did not have the proper city approval, according to media reports. Gimbal did not immediately return a call for comment.
One Chicago digital privacy expert called these beacons a "massive invasion of privacy" because the sensors know a person's location.
"Knowing a person's location can reveal whether she is at a mosque or church or synagogue, whether she is at an abortion clinic, an AIDS clinic or meeting with a competitor of her employer," Lori Andrews, an IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law professor and director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology, told RedEye.
In a news release, Titan's chief strategy officer Dave Etherington was quoted as saying: "We believe that beacon technology is a major step in helping cities become more connected and deliver a great experience to its residents and visitors. We look forward to working with the CTA to understand the benefits of this technology and are committed to conducting the test in a transparent, open manner to eliminate privacy concerns."
Here's how the beacons, or sensors, work. When a person walks by a sensor, it emits signals to the person's smartphone if he or she has the Bluetooth feature on the phone enabled and an app on the phone that can receive the signals.
Stores use these sensors to alert nearby shoppers of deals, which pop up on their smartphones. Taco Bell uses the sensors to distribute coupons while Starbucks allows customers to place orders without having to wait in line, the American Banker reported. RedEye also uses this technology in its iPhone and Android app.
Steele says these sensors themselves cannot see, collect or store any information, but Andrews said she found at least one app that utilizes beacon signals and collects information including the duration of time the phone is near the sensor.
Steele said the CTA is looking into how beacon technology could be useful for CTA riders. The two-week trial last month was just to confirm the sensors work, not to provide information to riders, Steele said. Titan paid to install and remove the sensors but Steele did not know that pricetag. Titan confirmed the CTA pilot was successful and the technology works.
The trial did not go before the CTA board for approval, Steele said, but said "tests of new technologies—which the CTA does frequently—are not required to go before the board."
The 11 rail stations in the first test were the Midway Orange Line stop; the Fullerton and Belmont stops on the Red, Brown and Purple lines; the Addison, Lake and Grand Red Line stops; the Washington/Wells and Clark/Lake Loop stations; the Jackson and O'Hare Blue Line stops; and the Roosevelt stop on the Red, Orange and Green lines.
Steele said the sensors possibly could provide more accurate train and bus tracker information to riders. If a rider is standing on a platform of a station such as the Clark/Lake Loop station, where multiple lines stop, platform train tracker displays show all the train tracking information for the various lines.
This technology could identify if a rider at Clark/Lake is standing on the platform for the Brown and Green lines or on the Blue Line subway platform and provide specific train tracking information based on the rider's location directly to the rider's phone, Steele said.
The technology also may sense which exact stop bus riders are standing at on a busy street served by multiple bus lines and provide tailored bus tracking information.
"Part of the upcoming pilot test will be to explore these and other ways that the beacons might be used to provide better location-based information to customers or even assist in providing better customer service functions," Steele said.
In the future pilot, likely to come this year, the CTA will announce the test as well as beacon locations, Steele said.
Andrews said the CTA already knows too much about riders through the Ventra card program, which keeps track of the time and locations where riders tap their cards.
"When big transit becomes Big Brother, we all lose our privacy," Andrews said.
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