Man on mobile phone at a station; Man on mobile phone at a station;

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Across the rail sector, in any discussion about improving customer experience, the subject of digital privacy will generally be low on the agenda. Safety, security, reliability and a host of other concerns rightfully dominate the design of rail projects. Digital privacy can still be perceived as a niche topic, despite the regular flow of stories in the media about the compromise of personal details or abuse of social media data. When was the last time you read the privacy statement on any of the websites you access, even when you are explicitly prompted by the ‘cookie notice’ on your first visit?

Consider a train journey that takes you from A to B. Every step of the way you might be leaving a ‘digital footprint’ of your activity: your ticket-buying habits logged against your online account, the credit card used to pay, the CCTV that monitors the station, the ticket barriers you pass through, the on-board wi-fi, or the coffee you buy on the train with your card. Even the journey that your phone makes is electronically tracked by the mobile network and sold on to organisations (including the train companies) interested in the volumes and trends of journeys made by rail.

The risk of abuse of your personal data in these circumstances is real, as are the potential impacts if this happens. Privacy matters to people just as much as safety, security and other design attributes. This must be kept at the forefront of our minds when considering the trade-offs and compromises that ultimately shape the outcomes of a project. As examples, CCTV is meant to increase your security but inevitably reduces your privacy. Contactless payments are quick and convenient but register the data from your debit/credit card. And all those tempting rail marketing offers and discounts get a return on investment in the form of data analytics that map your behaviour and habits.

Today’s railways are rightly increasing the spotlight on improving customer experience. For most people, using credit cards, wi-fi or their smartphone is seen as an inescapable convenience. But it is easy to forget that there is an implicit permission granted by the customer in these scenarios: “I will use digital technology as long as the trade-off against my privacy is acceptable to me. And how I define ‘acceptable’ is also my own personal decision and will change over time.”

Digital technology provides opportunities to transform lives for the better. In parallel, it must offer data privacy controls to the individual, so they can ‘opt in’ to these conveniences to a greater or lesser degree. This means alternative ways to pay, including cash, even if that means joining a queue for a ticket office clerk. Recognising this implicit privacy trade-off means we can design railway schemes and systems so that people can quietly enjoy seamless journeys, without handing over more than they expected to about their private life.