First your phone, now your Presto card: We’re sleepwalking into surveillance, privacy advocate says


Metrolinx has been giving police access to Presto travel records, sometimes without a warrant. (Metrolinx)

The apparent ability of police to access Presto user travel records is just another example of how increasingly difficult it is to avoid having your movements tracked in today’s society, a privacy advocate said Friday.

“We need to quit sleepwalking into surveillance,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s privacy, surveillance and technology project, in an interview.

On June 3 the Toronto Star revealed that Metrolinx, the provincial crown agency that owns Presto, has on 12 occasions provided police forces with travel records — information on where and when a user tapped their card — sometimes without requiring a warrant.

It is unknown which police forces were given the data but Presto is used across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area as well as in Ottawa on OC Transpo.

“Increasingly it’s possible to track people with the technology we use to go about our (daily) lives,” McPhail said. A chief example would be phones that log locations.

McPhail compared the issue to that of personal information held by telecom companies. Police had previously been able to obtain that information without a warrant, until the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that practice unconstitutional in 2014 and said police must get a warrant beforehand.

Like telecom information — which can be used to identify a subscriber — travel records say a lot about who someone is, McPhail said.

Ottawa police could not immediately say whether they had ever used Presto data in the course of an investigation and if so, whether a warrant was involved. “I don’t know if I could say without a doubt,” said spokeswoman Carol MacPherson on Tuesday.

The chief of OC Transpo’s transit police force, Jim Babe, said they have not requested such data.

“At no time have OC Transpo Special Constables sought or obtained access to Presto users’ personal information for general investigative or surveillance purposes,” Babe said in a statement relayed through the city’s media relations office.

Babe said that the City of Ottawa and OC Transpo were aware that Metrolinx has the discretion to provide the data to police without a warrant, but was not aware if it had happened to any OC Transpo customer.

As a public institution, Metrolinx is subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy act which allows personal information to be disclosed to “a law enforcement agency in Canada to aid an investigation.”

The Presto privacy policy allows for disclosure when “it is required or permitted by law or pursuant to a court order.”

“The reality is, nobody is going to sit down and read the policy,” said the CCLA’s McPhail. “(But) if you read the privacy policy of many companies you’ll see they can do that.”

Metrolinx is taking a second look at its privacy policy, spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins said in a statement.

“Privacy and the protection of personal information is highly important to us as an organization. We know that it is extremely important to our customers as well,” Aikins wrote. “We want to take this opportunity to examine the feedback to ensure we are striking the best possible balance between upholding high public safety standards, exemplary privacy standards and clear communication with our customers.”

Aikins pointed out that in emergencies or in missing persons cases, a warrant is not always feasible. Out of the 12 occasions Metrolinx provided data to police, six were for criminal matters and six were for missing persons, according to the Star.

When Metrolinx makes a decision on its current policy, it should be public, McPhail said. As well, they should also inform the public when they have disclosed data and to whom.

“Policies need to be clear and transparent, warrants are ideal,” she summarized.

As well, users can protect themselves by proactively asking questions and writing to their elected representatives — policy gets changed by making a ruckus, she said.

She also suggested customers make it a business issue and boycott companies that do not make privacy a priority.

It may be tough to make privacy a business issue for Presto. It holds a monopoly and the province requires the city to use it in order to get gas tax revenue.

Devyn Barrie

Devyn Barrie is the editor of and its sister site He has a journalism diploma from Algonquin College and has lived in Ottawa most of his life. Twitter: @DevynBarrieNews.


1 Response

  1. Pat says:

    Respecting a persons privacy has become a big issue. I live on one side of a double house – talk about togetherness – The neigbour next door put up a surveillance cameras – one on the front of her house overlooking the front street. Two at the back of her house. I am 78 years of age have small hot tub or therapeutic needs – one of the cameras installed in the back of her property definitely an invasion of my privacy. The one place up high is pointing down on my property only. The 2nd camera down towards her back door. It is hard to understand why – her backyard is full of overgrowth & brush – if she is really worried cutting-trimming the overgrowth in her backyard would provide her with safety & security – that is if she truely worried about a breakin. Any person wishing to break in to her premise can hide in & under all the foliage that NEVER GET TRIMMED. Furthermore I live alone & feel safe & secure as an elderly woman – she has a man who is strong – occupation a general contractor. She would be much better off putting alarms & security camera(s) in her house – Wifi will allow her-him to see a break in by using an app on their cell phones. At all times when I use my hot tub – I look up to a camera tat is immediately pointing down on my tub. I have no privacy and my daughter is very concerned that her elderly mother is exposed to these people and their guests. I am disgusted – also at my age I am not body beautiful – some fractured bones, a prosthesis (hip replacement), a little slow at getting in & out – and find it pitiful at the disruption to my life, my privacy – what gives –

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