New York City: Algorithms to count the amount of subway fare evaders

Subway turnstile at a subway station in New York City
The subway’s operating company plans to implement the software in additional stations in the future. In the past year, there were more than 10,000 surveillance cameras there.(Source: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire)

In some New York City subway stations, algorithms are counting how many subway riders are able to pass through subway turnstiles without a ticket. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) wants to continue expanding the implementation of such systems in the future – supposedly only for statistical purposes. However, the MTA saves the video footage. Civil rights activists criticise of an ever-present surveillance in the city and caution that the recordings could also be passed on to the police in the future.

As described in a report made by the MTA about passengers without tickets, the system has already been in operation at seven subway stations in New York City since May. According to the report, “approximately two dozen more stations” should follow.

Subway riders must pass through subway turnstiles that open after presenting a valid train ticket when entering New York subways. According to the MTA report, the algorithms can recognise when and how people evade these barriers based on recordings – for example, by jumping over them or crouching underneath them.

MTA Communications Director, Tim Minton, explains to NBC News that they can determine how much money the company loses from passengers without tickets with the help of the system. It remains unclear how long the recorded videos are saved: Minton told NBC of it being only “for a limited period”.

System first tested in 2020

According to statements by the transportation authority, the software used is called “Detector” from the Spanish company, AWAAIT. As seen in contracts that were published due to requests based on freedom of information, the system was already first tested in New York City in 2020.

In a video advertisement, AWAAIT shows how the software recognises when subway turnstiles are bypassed in Barcelona and informs ticket inspectors of this. The inspectors receive photos directly on their smartphone.

More surveillance technology than ever before

A spokesperson from the New York transportation authority emphasized to NBC that the system does not report incidents to the police. However, she did not want to answer whether this may change in the future. The “Transit Bureau” of the police is responsible for passengers without tickets in New York. According to statements from NBC, the number of police officers in stations has increased over the past year.

Critics see the implementation of the system as part of a growing surveillance apparatus in New York City. Caitlin Seeley from the NGO Fight for the Future told Gizmodo that the police in New York had already evaded scrutiny of the technologies it used in the past. It is difficult to believe that no plans exist for the technology to be used for expanding police work. The system has the potential to extend to surveillance to train passengers.

Albert Fox Cahn, director of the civil rights organisation Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, explained to NBC that movements of citizens have never been under as much surveillance as they are today. For example, the implementation of automatic license plate scanners is increasing – and there are tens of thousands of cameras that New York police have access to.

Last year, the human rights organisation, Amnesty International, published a study according to which the New York Police Department could access 20,000 state-owned and privately owned cameras on the streets. According to that report, facial recognition software was also used by the authorities.

Kathy Hochul, governor of New York state, announced that every subway train car in New York City would be equipped with two surveillance cameras in the future. There are already more than 10,000 cameras installed in the 472 subway stations in the city. Hochul also stated then: “You think Big Brother’s watching you on the subways? You’re absolutely right.”

Fox Cahn criticised that it is becoming more and more difficult to move in New York without being observed. He also stated: “We know the reasons why New Yorkers ride without paying: poverty, lost MetroCards, and limits on school transit passes.” And continued: “But no matter how much surveillance we install, we can’t get people to pay for the train if they can’t afford it.” (js)