LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 14: A man using an Apple iPad Mini tablet computer whilst waiting for an underground train on January 14, 2013. (Photo by Will Ireland/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
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Passengers travelling through London Underground’s network will be tracked on their journeys through the WiFi beacons on their smartphones, Transport for London said on Monday.

Following a trial of the system in 2016, TfL said it would use the tracking data to understand how commuters move through the network and to send targeted information about avoiding congestion.

The data are collected as smartphones pass the WiFi transmitters at each station, allowing TfL to build a detailed picture of which combination of Tube lines are used for journeys, which platforms are busiest and at what time, and how people flow through the public spaces of the stations. Previously, TfL only had data from Oyster or other payment cards on where passengers entered and left the network.

The data may also yield commercial benefits for TfL, which is under severe budgetary pressure, allowing it to price advertising based on where it sees the heaviest footfall.

Lauren Sager Weinstein, TfL’s chief data officer, said she was “mindful of the responsibility” that comes with the new tracking ability. “Transparency, privacy and ethics need to be at the forefront of data work in society and we recognise the trust that our customers place in us,” she said.

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Technology experts raised concerns about whether the data can be properly anonymised or kept confidential.

Lukasz Olejnik, a research associate at Oxford university’s centre for technology and global affairs, said: “In a system like this, the overall technical settings are of crucial importance. The database will contain a lot of records about individuals. Securing it is, therefore, of paramount importance.”

It is also unclear if the data collected by TfL could be subject to General Data Protection Regulation access requests. Such requests allow individuals to demand organisations hand over any data held on them within 30 days.

Ms Sager Weinstein said TfL had “pored over” guidance provided by the Information Commissioner’s Office to ensure the system met the highest data protection standards. She added that the data collected would not be subject to GDPR access requests because there was no way of directly identifying an individual from their phone signal.

TfL said it would put up signs telling passengers that they can opt out of having their data collected by turning off their WiFi — but they will not be able to access the internet on parts of the network without mobile phone reception.

The organisation has been facing financial difficulty since the UK government started withdrawing its operating grant, which stood at £1.1bn in 2013-14 and has now disappeared entirely. A freeze on fares instituted by London mayor Sadiq Khan and falling passenger numbers have also contributed to TfL’s troubles.

TfL’s business plan predicted a £900m operating loss for 2019-20, but that was before the full opening of Crossrail was delayed until 2021.

Crossrail’s delay is expected to cost TfL £1bn in lost revenue, according to rating agency Moody’s — £300m to £400m more than TfL’s 2018 business plan had anticipated.

This article has been amended since publication to correct Ms Sager Weinstein’s surname.

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