Transport for London to track commuters through Wi-Fi

The trial will slurp up user smartphone and tablet MAC addresses when commuters enter and leave stations.

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Transport for London

Transport for London (TfL) has announced a pilot program which will track commuters' travel routes through free Wi-Fi services.

The trial, which lasts four weeks from Monday, "will help give TfL a more accurate understanding of how people move through stations, interchange between services and how crowding develops," according to the transport agency.

As noted by The Telegraph, the pilot program's operators hope the data gleaned from commuter devices will create a repository of valuable data on how modern commuters use the transport network -- which often suffers under the burden of crowding, especially in peak times.

At present, TfL is only able to track commuter locations and times of use through the Oyster card program, which is limited to when people enter and exit the underground network. However, by using Wi-Fi requests, the agency may be able to determine the most-used routes and interchanges, where the advertising hotspots are, and determine where investment would be best placed.

When a commuter uses their smartphone or tablet to connect to free Wi-Fi, available at certain stations, Wi-Fi enabling automatically searches for available hotspots. The seeking device's Media Access Control (MAC) address will now automatically be detected by the tracking system, grabbed, and analyzed to determine commuter paths.

To placate travelers worried about their privacy, TfL says this data is "automatically de-personalised" and anonymized before being used for analysis and will not be shared or sold to third-parties. In addition, posters will inform commuters when they enter one of the 45 trial stations where tracking is active.

"This short trial will help us understand whether Wi-Fi connection data could help us plan and operate our transport network more effectively for customers," Shashi Verma, chief technology officer at TfL said. " Historically, if we wanted to know how people travelled we would have to rely on paper surveys and manual counting, which is expensive, time consuming and limited in detail and reliability."

"We hope the results of this trial will enable us to provide customers with even better information for journey planning and avoiding congestion," Verma added.

If you do not want to be tracked or to be part of the program, you simply need to turn off your device's Wi-Fi while on the move. The trial is due to last for four weeks, but if successful, could become a permanent fixture in London stations.

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