When our freedoms are being taken away we are like the proverbial frog boiled alive in water where the temperature is slowly brought to boiling point. Who batted an eyelid in June when it was reported that rail companies are drawing up plans to abolish paper rail tickets and have us all travel with e-tickets instead? Who picked up on today’s story that explains one of the reasons why the police are so keen to switch us to e-ticketing?
Lucy D’Orsi, chief constable of the British Transport Police, says her force wants access to data from passengers’ mobile phones and bank cards so that it can track us around the network. At the moment, you can get on a train from Wolverhampton to London with a paper ticket and leave little trace. The ticket itself can be tracked if it’s put through the ticket barriers at a station that has them, but no rail company nor the British Transport Police can have any real idea who is travelling on that ticket, especially if it was bought with cash. Force us to travel with e-tickets connected to our mobile phones or bank cards, and it is all too easy to track us.
To what purpose? D’Orsi was quite open about the possibilities that would arise. She quoted the example of someone who was spotted by an algorithm travelling on the Tube for six hours and who, she suggested, might be a ‘pickpocket’ or a ‘predatory sex offender’. She also quoted the example of someone who caught a train from London to Liverpool and then caught one back straight away. ‘That’s not normal,’ she said. ‘That’s not what people do. So why is someone doing that?’ In future, she suggested, British Transport Police would be able to pick them up as a suspected drug-dealer.
We are supposed to think, of course, that only criminals will be stopped. Except that there are very good reasons why we all sometimes find ourselves making unusual journeys. Next winter, I confidently predict, D’Orsi and her colleagues will find themselves feeling the collar of large numbers of poor people who are travelling the Tube to keep warm and save heating bills at home – henceforth they are could be suspected pickpockets or predatory sex offenders. As for who would want to travel to Liverpool and straight back again, I can think of numerous reasons: a parent dropping off their children with grandparents or an ex-partner for the week; someone who started a journey to attend a business meeting only to receive a call en-route that it had been cancelled; someone meeting family or friends from abroad and is going with them for the journey. All these people are, apparently, in the eyes of British Transport Police, criminal suspects, designated as such by an algorithm.
This is not to mention the vastly increased chances of capturing passengers for minor ticket irregularities because they didn’t understand the Byzantine system of rules that govern the vast numbers of different tickets on offer. Rail companies already delight in springing upon passengers and charging them eye-watering standard fares when they get on the wrong inter-city train by mistake. In future, catch the wrong train and you could find your credit card docked.
That is how everyday life works in China. It is not how any of us should want it to work in Britain. The trouble is: who is going to stop it happening?