Tracking is no longer just on the rails for Boston's MBTA

The advertising contractor for metropolitan Boston’s subway rail system is launching a program to track riders with smart beacon technology. The company emphasizes that it is voluntary and anonymous, but privacy experts are not convinced

red line mbta subway boston
Michael Hicks (CC BY 2.0)

Big Conductor could be watching you … but only if you want him (or her) to.

That, of course, is not the way a press release a couple of weeks ago put it, announcing the launch of a pilot program by private contractor Intersection to track riders’ who are using the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) system in 10 of its stations in Boston and Cambridge.

The pitch from Intersection, an “urban experience” company created through a merger of media company Titan and technology firm Control Group, is that the program’s goals are to improve the rider experience and to help companies that advertise with the MBTA “increase engagement and interaction with commuters” who are near to their stores – targeted ads, in other words.

This will be accomplished through what Intersection says is, “a secure, closed network of Gimbal Bluetooth Smart beacons,” that will collect no personally identifiable information (PII), since they are, “transmit-only Bluetooth low-energy devices that send out a signal that can only be used by user-enabled apps running on mobile devices to trigger location-specific content.”

The company said riders will be tracked only if they, “download an app that utilizes the technology and opt in, to allow the app to receive the beacon’s signal.”

Gimbal, in a prepared statement, emphasized not only the anonymity of the program, but the choices to riders, who can disable it by turning off location services or Bluetooth on their phones.

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