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Spooks want to go fishing in Oyster database

Pearl-diving in London's smartcard beds

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The UK's spooks have sought full automated access to Transport for London (TfL)'s "Oyster" smartcard network, further extending the amount of travel data available to the government.

The Observer said this weekend that the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has confirmed that the clandestine services have requested full Oyster access, and would target other cities' smartcard travel schemes as they come online.

At present they can request details of an Oyster user's transactions - and hence, time-slugged locations - on an individual basis only, rather than having free rein to search the system as they please. This could include mining the entire database to look for suspicious patterns, and tracking named individuals.

It isn't difficult to avoid Oyster monitoring, as one need merely pay cash when using public transport. The smartcard scheme is significantly cheaper than cash, however, and many righteous citizens might resent paying extra for privacy. Of course, there's always the option of registering an Oyster card under a false name and only ever topping up by cash. Or simply buying a pay as you go Oyster at a ticket window.

Driving in TfL's central area of responsibility offers no escape, since the congestion-charge numberplate-scan camera net was hooked up to the secret terror police following a series of "bomb" outrages in which no bombs were used and only terrorists were hurt. Other cities are also looking at their own electronic traffic management schemes, while the UK motorway system has a handy network of ANPR cameras.

The ICO apparently refused any further comment on the progress of the Whitehall debate regarding MI5/SS and MI6/SIS access to Oyster, citing "national security" concerns as the reason for conducting the discussion in secret.®

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