Metrolinx vows to review privacy procedures after providing Presto customer data to police

Metrolinx says it is formally reviewing its privacy procedures in the wake of criticism over its sharing of Presto card customer data with law enforcement agencies.

Transit agency says it is 'absolutely' taking privacy concerns of customers seriously

It's not entirely clear if Metrolinx actually plans to revise its privacy policy, or simply change how it applies the existing policy. Either way, the public will have a chance to comment on a "new" policy over the summer.

Metrolinx says it is formally reviewing its privacy procedures in the wake of criticism over its sharing of Presto card customer data with law enforcement agencies in the past year.

"We are absolutely taking the concerns seriously," Anne Marie Aikins, spokesperson for the provincial transit agency, said Tuesday. "We want to make sure our customers know that we value their privacy."

In the last fiscal year, from April 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017, Metrolinx received 26 requests from law enforcement agencies for the travel records of Presto card users. The records indicate the exact time and location that a Presto card was tapped during a trip.

Aikins said 14 of those requests were denied, but 12 were granted. Of those 12, six involved cases of missing people, while the other six involved criminal investigations. In only two of the 12 requests, law enforcement agencies provided warrants. Both of those cases involved criminal investigations.

In one of the 12 cases, a person was accused of assaulting a GO bus driver, while in another case, a person was accused of sexually assaulting another person on a GO train, Aikins said.

Aikins declined to say which police services made the request for travel records. Metrolinx said it has three million Presto card holders in the Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton and Ottawa. 

According to Metrolinx, only "limited travel history information" was provided to police for the 12 requests and only after police fulfilled specific criteria. That means police officers had to provide identification and a badge number as well as a case number and had to sign a document in front of Metrolinx lawyers that stated the information they provided was truthful.

Under the Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the provincial transit agency is not required to obtain a warrant from police when requests for travel records are made. It is up to the discretion of the agency whether it asks for a warrant or not, Aikins said. It's on a case by case basis, she explained.

In its formal review, Metrolinx will look at how it vets requests from police for travel records, what is required under the legislation, what fits its criteria, how it tracks such requests and whether or not it should report the requests by publishing the information annually. 

"This is very timely for us," she said. "it's always a balancing act."

Aikins said it's a question of safety versus privacy but the agency has been made aware that its customers are concerned about the release of Presto card data.

Critics, including Coun. Joe Mihevc and Jessica Bell, a transit rider advocate with the group TTC Riders, have said the practice of providing transit data is unsettling and could infringe on the rights of transit users. 

Mihevc said in a tweet that the formal review is good news.

Brian Beamish, Ontario's information and privacy commissioner, said Metrolinx has the discretionary power to disclose personal information to police in certain circumstances, but there are many things to consider before doing so.

He said, for example, Metrolinx could disclose information in an emergency where a person's life is in danger, and as long as the person is notified afterward, or in cases where police require help in an active criminal investigation.

"As a general rule, any of these discretionary disclosures should only be made after considering the circumstances surrounding the request such as the nature of the information, the potential benefits of disclosure, and the extent of the privacy invasion," Beamish said.

"However, this is discretionary. Based on the circumstances, Metrolinx may wish to require the police to get a court order prior to any disclosure. The requirement to obtain a warrant can always be tested in court should charges be brought."