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June 25, 2019
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London’s Tube network to switch on wi-fi tracking by default in July

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Transport for London will roll out default wi-fi device tracking on the London Underground this summer, following a trial back in 2016.

In a press release announcing the move, TfL writes that “secure, privacy-protected data collection will begin on July 8” — while touting additional services, such as improved alerts about delays and congestion, which it frames as “customer benefits”, as expected to launch “later in the year”.

As well as offering additional alerts-based services to passengers via its own website/apps, TfL says it could incorporate crowding data into its free open-data API — to allow app developers, academics and businesses to expand the utility of the data by baking it into their own products and services.

It’s not all just added utility though; TfL says it will also use the information to enhance its in-station marketing analytics — and, it hopes, top up its revenues — by tracking footfall around ad units and billboards.

Commuters using the UK capital’s publicly funded transport network who do not want their movements being tracked will have to switch off their wi-fi, or else put their phone in airplane mode when using the network.

To deliver data of the required detail, TfL says detailed digital mapping of all London Underground stations was undertaken to identify where wi-fi routers are located so it can understand how commuters move across the network and through stations.

It says it will erect signs at stations informing passengers that using the wi-fi will result in connection data being collected “to better understand journey patterns and improve our services” — and explaining that to opt out they have to switch off their device’s wi-fi.

Attempts in recent years by smartphone OSes to use MAC address randomization to try to defeat persistent device tracking have been shown to be vulnerable to reverse engineering via flaws in wi-fi set-up protocols. So, er, switch off to be sure.

We covered TfL’s wi-fi tracking beta back in 2017, when we reported that despite claiming the harvested wi-fi data was “de-personalised”, and claiming individuals using the Tube network could not be identified, TfL nonetheless declined to release the “anonymized” data-set after a Freedom of Information request — saying there remains a risk of individuals being re-identified.

As has been shown many times before, reversing ‘anonymization’ of personal data can be frighteningly easy.

It’s not immediately clear from the press release or TfL’s website exactly how it will be encrypting the location data gathered from devices that authenticate to use the free wi-fi at the circa 260 wi-fi enabled London Underground stations.

Its explainer about the data collection does not go into any real detail about the encryption and security being used. (We’ve asked for more technical details.)

“If the device has been signed up for free Wi-Fi on the London Underground network, the device will disclose its genuine MAC address. This is known as an authenticated device,” TfL writes generally of how the tracking will work.

“We process authenticated device MAC address connections (along with the date and time the device authenticated with the Wi-Fi network and the location of each router the device connected to). This helps us to better understand how customers move through and between stations — we look at how long it took for a device to travel between stations, the routes the device took and waiting times at busy periods.”

“We do not collect any other data generated by your device. This includes web browsing data and data from website cookies,” it adds, saying also that “individual customer data will never be shared and customers will not be personally identified from the data collected by TfL”.

In a section entitled “keeping information secure” TfL further writes: “Each MAC address is automatically depersonalised (pseudonymised) and encrypted to prevent the identification of the original MAC address and associated device. The data is stored in a restricted area of a secure location and it will not be linked to any other data at a device level.  At no time does TfL store a device’s original MAC address.”

Privacy and security concerns were raised about the location tracking around the time of the 2016 trial — such as why TfL had used a monthly salt key to encrypt the data rather than daily salts, which would have decreased the risk of data being re-identifiable should it leak out.

Such concerns persist — and security experts are now calling for full technical details to be released, given TfL is going full steam ahead with a rollout.

 

A report in Wired suggests TfL has switched from hashing to a system of tokenisation – “fully replacing the MAC address with an identifier that cannot be tied back to any personal information”, which TfL billed as as a “more sophisticated mechanism” than it had used before. We’ll update as and when we get more from TfL.

Another question over the deployment at the time of the trial was what legal basis it would use for pervasively collecting people’s location data — since the system requires an active opt-out by commuters a consent-based legal basis would not be appropriate.

In a section on the legal basis for processing the Wi-Fi connection data, TfL writes now that its ‘legal ground’ is two-fold:

  • Our statutory and public functions
  • to undertake activities to promote and encourage safe, integrated, efficient and economic transport facilities and services, and to deliver the Mayor’s Transport Strategy

So, presumably, you can file ‘increasing revenue around adverts in stations by being able to track nearby footfall’ under ‘helping to deliver (read: fund) the mayor’s transport strategy’.

(Or as TfL puts it: “[T]he data will also allow TfL to better understand customer flows throughout stations, highlighting the effectiveness and accountability of its advertising estate based on actual customer volumes. Being able to reliably demonstrate this should improve commercial revenue, which can then be reinvested back into the transport network.”)

On data retention it specifies that it will hold “depersonalised Wi-Fi connection data” for two years — after which it will aggregate the data and retain those non-individual insights (presumably indefinitely, or per its standard data retention policies).

“The exact parameters of the aggregation are still to be confirmed, but will result in the individual Wi-Fi connection data being removed. Instead, we will retain counts of activities grouped into specific time periods and locations,” it writes on that.

It further notes that aggregated data “developed by combining depersonalised data from many devices” may also be shared with other TfL departments and external bodies. So that processed data could certainly travel.

Of the “individual depersonalised device Wi-Fi connection data”, TfL claims it is accessible only to “a controlled group of TfL employees” — without specifying how large this group of staff is; and what sort of controls and processes will be in place to prevent the risk of A) data being hacked and/or leaking out or B) data being re-identified by a staff member.

A TfL employee with intimate knowledge of a partner’s daily travel routine might, for example, have access to enough information via the system to be able to reverse the depersonalization.

Without more technical details we just don’t know. Though TfL says it worked with the UK’s data protection watchdog in designing the data collection with privacy front of mind.

“We take the privacy of our customers very seriously. A range of policies, processes and technical measures are in place to control and safeguard access to, and use of, Wi-Fi connection data. Anyone with access to this data must complete TfL’s privacy and data protection training every year,” it also notes elsewhere.

Despite holding individual level location data for two years, TfL is also claiming that it will not respond to requests from individuals to delete or rectify any personal location data it holds, i.e. if people seek to exercise their information rights under EU law.

“We use a one-way pseudonymisation process to depersonalise the data immediately after it is collected. This means we will not be able to single out a specific person’s device, or identify you and the data generated by your device,” it claims.

“This means that we are unable to respond to any requests to access the Wi-Fi data generated by your device, or for data to be deleted, rectified or restricted from further processing.”

Again, the distinctions it is making there are raising some eyebrows.

What’s amply clear is that the volume of data that will be generated as a result of a full rollout of wi-fi tracking across the lion’s share of the London Underground will be staggeringly massive.

More than 509 million “depersonalised” pieces of data, were collected from 5.6 million mobile devices during the four-week 2016 trial alone — comprising some 42 million journeys. And that was a very brief trial which covered a much smaller sub-set of the network.

As big data giants go, TfL is clearly gunning to be right up there.

Amazon leads $575M investment in Deliveroo

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Amazon is taking a slice of Europe’s food delivery market after the U.S. e-commerce giant led a $575 million investment in Deliveroo .

First reported by Sky yesterday, the Series G round was confirmed in an early UK morning announcement from Deliveroo, which confirmed that existing backers including T. Rowe Price, Fidelity Management and Research Company, and Greenoaks also took part. The deal takes Deliveroo to just over $1.5 billion raised to date. The company was valued at over $2 billion following its previous raise in late 2017, no updated valuation was provided today.

London-based Deliveroo operates in 14 countries, including the U.K, France, Germany and Spain, and — outside of Europe — Singapore, Taiwan, Australia and the UAE. Across those markets, it claims it works with 80,000 restaurants with a fleet of 60,000 delivery people and 2,500 permanent employees.

It isn’t immediately clear how Amazon plans to use its new strategic relationship with Deliveroo — it could, for example, integrate it with Prime membership — but this isn’t the firm’s first dalliance with food delivery. The U.S. firm closed its Amazon Restaurants UK takeout business last year after it struggled to compete with Deliveroo and Uber Eats. The service remains operational in the U.S, however.

“Amazon has been an inspiration to me personally and to the company, and we look forward to working with such a customer-obsessed organization,” said Deliveroo CEO and founder Will Shu in a statement.

Shu said the new money will go towards initiatives that include growing Deliveroo’s London-based engineering team, expanding its reach and focusing on new products, including cloud kitchens that can cook up delivery meals faster and more cost-efficiently.

[Center] Will Shu, Deliveroo CEO and co-founder, on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt London

Autonomous vehicles make congestion pricing even more critical

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Autonomous vehicles will soon be ubiquitous on city streets. Before this happens, we should ask ourselves: Will they whisk us quickly through cities or make traffic worse?

A car is a car, whether self-driving or people driven—taking up a great deal more space than busses, streetcars, or trains—so let’s make sure the cost is right. Traffic has already increased in many cities due to widespread ride-hailing. Once Uber further rolls out autonomous vehicle fleets, calling a car will be cheaper, more competitive—and a potential burden on our streets.

A new study by UC Santa Cruz Professor Adam Millard-Ball in the Journal of Transportation Policy makes a convincing case that self-driving cars will dramatically increase traffic further. Millard-Ball forecasts that the number of cars on the street could grow exponentially as more people are able to take their hands off the steering wheel and just sit back and ride.

Furthermore, when not in use, autonomous vehicles need to go somewhere. There are three options: go back home, park somewhere, or circle around. Most likely, these cars will endlessly circle the streets rather than parking and paying fees.

The rise in ride-hailing speaks to the need to think about congestion pricing — even more so in light of autonomous vehicles potentially circling the city aimlessly in the years to come — in more dynamic terms.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Existing congestion pricing schemes work a few different ways. Most programs either identify a core part of the city or specific zones within the city to institute a flat or variable rate fee on vehicles that drive into the specified areas. The systems monitor compliance through gantry and camera systems that record license plates, or some version of transponders in vehicles. All congestion pricing systems attach a price to road usage.

Particularly, variable pricing that captures usage throughout the city could lead to different decision-making by autonomous vehicles. Rather than ghosting through the streets waiting to pick up passengers, these cars could instead choose to park in either the core of the city or on the periphery, helping to unclog streets rather than adding to traffic.

Variable pricing increases as traffic increases, thereby pushing some drivers—or in the future self-driving vehicles—off the road and making cars glide more smoothly. In the US, we are most familiar with variable tolling schemes implemented on highways, but congestion pricing systems like those in Singapore and Stockholm include a variable nature to them throughout the congestion zone.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Congestion pricing could directly counteract an increase in vehicle usage, and ensure self-driving cars pay full freight for the impact they create. New York City will be implementing a congestion zone starting in 2021 that will affect all drivers south of 60th Street entering Manhattan. While the final structure is still to be determined, experts say it could bring in more than $1 billion a year to support public transit upgrades.

Across the pond, London’s policy — first implemented in 2003 — covers a core eight mile square zone and currently costs around $15. From 2002 to 2014, private cars entering the central zone dropped 39%. However, with the rapid increase in ride-hailing brought about by Uber and other companies, congestion has again increased.

In the Washington, D.C., and LA regions, variable pricing — just not in a downtown congestion zone — already provides highway drivers with the option to pay to drive in a free-flowing lane. The cost to consumers is anything but free, because the cost must line up with demand to keep traffic moving. In the Washington, D.C., region, the charges to drive from the city from far-out suburbs peaked near $40. But that was what it cost to keep traffic moving.

Singapore, on the other hand, extends this logic to the core of its city with its congestion pricing model. The city has over 50 points within the designated area in and around the central business district, and each of these points charges between $0 – $3, depending on the time of day and traffic conditions. Stockholm follows a similar logic to Singapore’s system with a total cap of around $11.30 per vehicle per day.

Good, responsive public policy can help us make the right choices. Congestion pricing can serve as a market-based regulator that gets the right number of cars on the street at a given time. At the same time, depending on the fuel mix of cars with gas versus electric, these systems can improve air quality and public health. And the funds from these plans can help support and improve transit systems.

When you ask city leaders what kind of cities they and their residents are trying to build, the resounding answer is cities for people, not cars. Let’s make sure self-driving vehicles help make cities better for everyone.

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs is developing visual cues to indicate when their tech is monitoring you

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Alphabet’s subsidiary focused on urban tech development, Sidewalk Labs, is now trying to reinvent signage for smart cities. These signs aren’t to direct the flow of traffic, or to point the way to urban landmarks — they’re designed to let citizens know when they’re being monitored.

The proposal is part of a push by the company to acclimate people to the technologies that it’s deploying in cities like New York and Toronto.

Globally, competition for contracts to deploy sensors, data management and predictive technologies in cities can run into the tens of millions, if not billions of dollars, and Sidewalk Labs knows this better than most. Because its projects are among the most ambitious deployments of sensing and networking technologies for smart cities, the company has also faced the most public criticism.

So at least partially in an attempt to blunt attacks from critics, the company is proposing to make its surveillance and monitoring efforts more transparent.

“Digital technology is all around us, but often invisible. Consider: on any one urban excursion (your commute, perhaps), you could encounter CCTVs, traffic cameras, transit card readers, bike lane counters, Wi-Fi access points, occupancy sensors that open doors — potentially all on the same block,” writes Jacqueline Lu, whose title is “assistant director of the public realm” at Sidewalk Labs.

Lu notes that while the technologies can be useful, there’s little transparency around the data these technologies are collecting, who the data is being collected by and what the data is collected for.

Cities like Boston and London already indicate when technology is being used in the urban environment, but Sidewalk Labs convened a group of designers and urban planners to come up with a system for signage that would make the technology being used even more public for citizens going about their day.

Image courtesy of Sidewalk Labs

Back in 2013, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission called for the development of these types of indicators when it issued a call for mobile privacy disclosures. But that seems to have resulted in companies just drafting reams of jargon-filled disclosures that obscured more than they revealed.

At Sidewalk, the goal is transparency, say the authors of the company’s suggested plan.

“We strongly believe that people should know how and why data is being collected and used in the public realm, and we also believe that design and technology can meaningfully facilitate this understanding. For these reasons, we embarked on a collaborative project to imagine what digital transparency in the public realm could be like,” writes Lu and her co-authors Principal Designer Patrick Keenan and Legal Associate Chelsey Colbert.

As an example, Sidewalk showed off potential designs for signage that would alert people to the presence of the company’s Numina technology.

That tech monitors traffic patterns by recording, anonymizing and transmitting data from sensors using digital recording and algorithmically enhanced software to track movement in an area. These sensors are installed on light poles and transmit data wirelessly.

At the very least, the technology can’t be any worse than the innocuously intended cameras that are monitoring public spaces already (and can be turned into surveillance tools easily).

The hexagonal designs indicate the purpose of the technology, the company deploying it, the reason for its use, whether or not the tech is collecting sensitive information and a QR code that can be scanned to find out more information.

The issue with experiments like these in the public sphere is that there’s no easy way to opt out of them. Sidewalk Lab’s Toronto project is both an astounding feat of design and the apotheosis of surveillance capitalism.

Once these decisions are made to cede public space to the private sector, or sacrifice privacy for security (or simply better information about a location for the sake of convenience), they’re somewhat difficult to unwind. As with most of the salient issues with technology today, it’s about unintended consequences.

Information about a technology’s deployment isn’t enough if the relevant parties haven’t thought through the ramifications of that technology’s use.

Ford’s electrified vision for Europe includes its Mustang-inspired SUV and a lot of hybrids

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Ford of Europe’s vision for electrification includes 16 vehicle models — eight of which will be on the road by the end of this year — the company announced at its Go Further event in Amsterdam.

Those plans include a plug-in hybrid variant of its Kuga SUV, its Mustang-inspired crossover, and a commercial transit van.

Ford’s European electrification strategy is in line with its plans for North America to focus largely on hybrids. For instance, in a separate event on Tuesday Ford took the wraps off its latest generation of the Escape, a 2020 model vehicle for the North American market that is sportier, loaded with technology and, comes with hybrid and electric options.

Last year, Ford ramped up its plans, announcing that it would phase out most cars it sells in North America. Ford will continue to produce the Mustang and focus the rest of its efforts in North America on trucks, utilities and commercial vehicles, as well as a move into electric vehicles.

The operational piece of Ford of Europe’s strategy, which does include a couple of all-electric vehicles in the mix, namely the Mustang-eseque SUV, will be largely led by Stuart Rowley.

Rowley, who took over as vice present and president of the regional outfit on April 1, will be responsible for all operational leadership of the business unit, including acceleration of the European transformation strategy. He reports to Jim Farley, president of Ford Global Markets.

The majority of the vehicles introduced Tuesday at Ford of Europe’s event are either hybrid or plug-in hybrid vehicles. Two of those vehicles – a plug-in hybrid Explorer SUV and  a new plug-in hybrid Tourneo for the commercial van market – made their global debuts at the Go Further event.

A plug-in hybrid variant of Ford’s new mid-size Kuga SUV, which will have a 31-mile range for the battery piece of the hybrid picture, was also introduced along with new Fiesta EcoBoost Hybrid and Focus EcoBoost Hybrid models that feature mild-hybrid technology for optimized fuel-efficiency.

Ford focused on the commercial end of the market as well, with plans to bring an all-electric Transit van to Europe by 2021. Ford is bringing a plug-in hybrid version of the Transit van to market this year. This plug-in hybrid will have a 13.6 kWh lithium-ion battery pack and Ford’s 1-liter EcoBoost gas engine, which acts as a range extender. The powertrain will have an all-electric (sometimes referred to as a zero-emission driving range) of 31 miles, and a total 310 miles range using the range extender. The vehicle is being trialed in London, with further testing scheduled to start soon in Valencia, Spain, and Cologne, Germany.

The Ford of Europe event confirmed that the often-teased ‘Mustang-inspired’ electric crossover will be more than a North American market. The vehicle, Ford said Tuesday, will be able to travel 600 kilometers, or 370 miles, on a single charge when it comes to market in 2020, an estimate based on European fuel consumption and emissions standard known as WLTP.

The WLTP, or World Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure, is a new standard that is supposed to make European fuel economy labels more realistic. (In the past, ranges in Europe were wildly overstated compared to the more conservative EPA estimates. Vehicles in the U.S. use EPA estimates.

Ford has said it’s targeting a 300-mile range for its electric crossover in the United States.

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