Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Oyster card hack to be published

with 6 comments


The Oyster card is the smart card used by London Transport, Hong Kong and the Dutch rijkpas. Not only has its security been compromised, making it possible to produce fake cards, but it has been now been done at least three times (that are known about) and a Dutch court has now agreed that one of the research groups can publish how to do it.

The reason I chose to bring this story to your attention is that our government is forcing Translink to adopt tougher security measures in an attempt to defeat fare evasion which it says will make people feel safer. The whole premise is, of course, nonsense. All systems have some degree of evasion. This costs money, of course, but usually not as much as trying to eliminate it altogether.

The Paris metro has gates – and every day someone somewhere leaps over them. The gates do not prevent fare evasion, but they are a dreadful nuisance to law abiding users who happen to have luggage, as there are very few places where the gates can be overridden legitimately. The Paris metro is not accessible – and does not try to be. It is also not a safe place. Pickpockets have always loved the crowded metro trains and continue to operate with impunity. If you feel safe on the metro because every entrance is gated then you are seriously deluded.

Just like computer security, there is a a constant escalation of the fight between the hackers and those who want to keep systems secure. How much do you spend on your computer security? Do you think spending a lot more money would be the best way to protect yourself?

Revenue loss is a problem, but not a very big one. And any rational analysis would be based on a sensible estimate of loss and a realistic appraisal of the the cost of reducing it. Gating SkyTrain has never passed that test.

The idea that fare evasion and danger to the public are the same issue is also fallacious. People intent on committing crimes do not draw attention to themselves, if they want to avoid detection. The daily haul of the average Paris pickpocket far exceeds the small investment in getting legitimate access to the system. But the sort of crime that people fear on SkyTrain is not the pickpocket, but the threat of violence. Now people who use violence to intimidate passengers are not especially rational. And their judgements may well be blurred by the use of chemicals – legal and otherwise. That this risk has not changed despite the extensive use of cctv and now armed police – and some of the most advanced communications seen on rapid transit anywhere – suggest to me that the introduction of turnstiles is irrelevant. Besides, the fare evader is mostly not a career criminal. He or she is exactly the same kind of respectable citizen who thinks that tax evasion, or getting a satellite tv signal for free or jamming a parking meter is reasonable – a way of “beating the system” or “sticking it to the man”. They also think that getting fake id is useful, or buying goods at odd places for remarkably low prices is a sensible economy, or getting stuff south of the border and not paying duty on it on their return. And they never, ever obey a speed limit and run red lights too if they think they can get away with it.

There is a line between being law abiding and not – and it moves all the time. Most people will not deliberately break the law, most of the time. But they will break it, if there seems to be no fear of consequences. You will drive through a red light – if it is late at night and there is no traffic and no-one around. If everyone is driving at 60 in a 50 limit, you will too. And you will all slow down if someone sees a marked police car.

People who feel unsafe on our transit system are simply responding to the information they have been subjected to. And ever since SkyTrain opened it has been associated with crime by the media – and many others. Yet the vast majority of users, most of the time, are safe – and much safer they they are on the street. Most drivers of motor vehicles think they are safe – and many flout the law all the time. And we, as a society, pay a very high price for this delusion. Yet our Minister of Transportation wants to spend large sums on making a safe transit system no safer, but is unwilling to spend small sums to make some of our most dangerous places safer. Because he does not understand – or chooses to ignore – rational economic analysis – and prefers to play to the gallery, and bolster current popular misconceptions.

And if this silly idea goes ahead, fare evasion and security will not be improved but the the system costs will be much greater than they need to be.

UPDATE Tuesday July 22

Metro directors oppose SkyTrain gates

A carefully worded resolution by Metro Vancouver directors is urging the provincial government to give the notion of installing turnstiles at SkyTrain stations careful thought.

They “respectfully” requested that a decision on gating rapid transit stations should be based on a financial and security analyses, telling the transit authority that “the greatest transportation need for citizens of Metro Vancouver is additional service, which means more buses and more rapid transit lines.”

But some directors used less diplomatic language during the discussion Friday.

Surrey Leader

Another UPDATE July 26

London Transport Oyster Card System Breaks Down for Second Time: Bloomberg

The agency opened barriers at London Underground stations across the city, allowing free travel after today’s breakdown.

Sometimes “proof of payment” (or the honour system, of you like) just seems a whole lot easier.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 21, 2008 at 8:19 am

Posted in Fare evasion

6 Responses

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  1. Let’s get one thing straight, the SkyTrain fare-gate issue is not one of protecting the metro system from fare evasion, rather it is a puerile political issue where a company has engaged a friend of the Premier, to act as a lobbyist, to sell a very expansive fare-gate/pre-paid fare card system.

    Fare evasion is not out of control as 80% of SkyTrain’s ridership first take a bus to the metro and as I can remember, bus drivers are very good in collecting fares.

    Again, the taxpayer is being taken for a ride, while friends of the government profit from our almost unique metro system.

    Follow the money!

    Malcolm J.

    July 21, 2008 at 10:46 am

  2. While I agree that gates are far too big a solution for a relatively small problem, having technology such as Oyster/Octopus really can revolutionise how we charge for transit, allowing us to move away from relatively coarse schemes such as the three zone structure we currently have, and towards distance- or even time-based charging. While turnstiles certainly aren’t a huge step forward, the ability to vary fares at a vastly finer scale would be a positive outcome, for sure.

    Desmond Bliek

    July 21, 2008 at 10:55 am

  3. I once had to limbo under a Paris metro barrier. I had bought a return but accidently fed the wrong half through the barrier so I couldn’t get back again. Mr Childs had already gone through ahead of me and got on the train. I had to choose between battling back through the crowds to buy another ticket or take the low level option – my jumping days are over…Nobody batted an eyelid!

    Mrs Childs

    July 21, 2008 at 12:05 pm

  4. […] Posted in Transportation by Stephen Rees on July 23rd, 2008 Just two days ago I was writing on this topic and today the CBC call and want my reaction to their story PricewaterhouseCoopers staff accompanied […]

  5. On the BBC News today, it is reported that the technique has now been published. TfL say that they were aware of the cloned card before they were told about it and have “back office” systems to protect revenue.

    read whole story

    Stephen Rees

    October 6, 2008 at 9:22 am

  6. […] the CTV reporter who produced the original story, did read my older blog posts and tweeted about one I wrote in 2008 about London’s Oyster card being […]

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