The MTA is using artificial intelligence to combat fare beaters on the New York City subway system but says it has no plans to bring the same technology to the Long Island Rail Road.
Still, a privacy activist who uncovered new details about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s “video analytics fare evasion software” said Long Island commuters should be concerned that the LIRR could incorporate A.I. into its existing surveillance camera system.
The MTA first disclosed its plans in a report issued in May about the agency’s fare evasion problem, which cost it $690 million last year, including $24 million lost on the LIRR.
The report noted that the MTA already had begun to “experiment with the use of computer technology” across seven subway stations to extrapolate the number of fare beaters across the subway system — about 16% of all riders. The MTA has said it plans to expand the use of the technology to about two dozen more stations by the end of this year.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The MTA is using artificial intelligence to combat fare beaters on the New York City subway system. The agency’s fare evasion problem cost it $690 million last year.
- The MTA is using the technology “as a counting tool” and is not using it to identify riders, an agency spokesperson said.
- As for the LIRR, the MTA says it has no plans to bring the same technology to it.
Although the report did not explain how the technology works, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), a New York-based privacy and civil rights group, last week released the MTA’s contract with Spanish technology firm Awaait Artificial Intelligence. It explained how the “video analytics fare evasion software” combines streamed video and actual fare “swipe data” made available by the MTA to zero-in on fare beaters.
The software even keeps tabs on the fare beaters' preferred methods: “jumping over turnstile, passing underneath turnstile, swinging the turnstile tripods arms back and forth, reverse entering at the emergency gates,” according to the contract.
The amount paid by the MTA for the technology is redacted in the documents obtained by S.T.O.P. MTA officials would not disclose the cost of the contract.
'A COUNTING TOOL'
In a statement, MTA communications director Tim Minton said the MTA is using the technology “as a counting tool” and is not using it to identify riders.
“The objective is to determine how many people are evading the fare and how are they doing it,” Minton said.
Still, subway rider Malcolm Combs, 23, said learning that the MTA is using A.I. to track fare beaters makes him feel "just a little bit" uneasy.
"You just never know what they use it for . . . I feel like it's kind of a gateway, if you allow it," said Combs, of Bayside, who questioned the MTA's newly intensified focus on fare evasion. "I don't see it a lot, and I don't know if I'd say it's something that really bothers me, because they plan on raising the prices [of fares] and you just never know what somebody is going through."
Asked if there were any plans to bring technology to the LIRR, MTA spokesperson Joana Flores said that because it works on fare gates, it could not be used on a commuter railroad like the LIRR, where riders have their fares validated once on board a train.
Still, Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of S.T.O.P., said he believes “at a time when every surveillance camera is just one software upgrade from being turned into a facial recognition tool, and with more and more cameras across the LIRR, there’s a good risk that this pilot might extend to the LIRR in the future.”
“We know that surveillance creep tends to start in New York City, but it definitely doesn’t stop there,” Cahn said. “We’ve definitely seen a lot of the surveillance programs expand onto Long Island in recent years.”
Cahn said he envisions the LIRR one day using facial recognition software to scan passengers as they board a train, so that past fare evaders could be “flagged” for authorities. MTA officials said they are not using facial recognition technology in their subway fare evasion A.I. program.
"The MTA uses this tool to quantify the amount of fare evasion without identifying fare evaders," Flores said.
CAMERAS ON LIRR TRAINS, AT STATIONS
The LIRR began installing cameras on its trains in 2014, and as of last September has them in place throughout 90% of its fleet. The railroad has also included the installation of security cameras in recent renovation projects of several Long Island stations, including New Hyde Park and Carle Place.
Privacy concerns have abounded even as elected officials have increasingly embraced surveillance technology and artificial intelligence as tools to secure the transit system. Following a mass shooting on a Brooklyn subway train in April of last year, New York City Mayor Eric Adams advocated for the use of “innovative technology” to detect weapons in the transit system.
In September, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced an initiative to increase the use of cameras on subway cars and stations, dismissing naysayers by pointing out that if “you walk into any grocery store, you're being watched."
"So, [if] you think 'Big Brother' is watching you on the subways, you're absolutely right,” Hochul added. “If you're concerned about this, the best answer is: Don't commit any crimes on the subways."