Metrocard alibi

November 19th, 2008 by Grace Meng

Thought-provoking article in The New York Times today—a man suspected of murder was released after his Metrocard records corroborated his alibi, that he had been on a bus, then with friends, and then on the subway around the time of the murder.

So Big Brother ended up in this case being Big Exonerator.  Yes, there are definitely serious privacy implications to the amount of data that is collected and stored through Metrocard, EZPass, and numerous other systems that catalog where we’ve been and where we’re going.  But the danger is not in the data itself.  The danger is in who has access to the data and how that data is used.

When J. Edgar Hoover was keeping secret files on American citizens, he did so without the benefit of the technologies we have today.  When the Bush administration conducted warrantless wiretapping, existing technologies certainly aided this work but it didn’t motivate it or even ultimately condone it—that was Congress.

In this case, the police made no effort to check the Metrocard data despite Mr. Jones’s alibi.   Luckily, the data didn’t belong to the police but to the transit authority, and his lawyers were not prevented from getting that data from the MTA.

The power government gains from huge amounts of locational data can’t be eliminated, but we can try to balance it demanding access to it for individuals as well.

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