Transit app helps lay charges in sexual assaults, but could be violating your privacy

A lawsuit alleges the Elerts app is tracking your location and unique cell ID, and has “amassed a trove of data”
October 13, 2017, 12:35pm

A new transit safety app sweeping North America and recently adopted by Toronto’s transit system is being credited for helping to lay charges in two sexual assault incidents. But it’s also the target of a lawsuit from a California transit user who says it violated her privacy.

It’s yet another case in the debate between safety and privacy.

Toronto’s transit system is crediting an app developed by U.S.-based software firm Elerts for helping lay charges against a man in two sexual assault cases.

On Oct. 3, transit officers arrested 21-year-old Troy Maru in connection with two assaults. In March, a woman reported she was assaulted. And in September, another woman reported a similar assault using the Safe TTC app, developed by Elerts.

Not only does it save GPS data, it also tracks the user’s course, elevation and speed.

The app allows users to submit complaints easily and quietly without having to dial 9-1-1; they can also attach photos or video if they choose. The second woman did not submit a photo, but the app allowed transit officers to contact her and get a description of the assault suspect. This week, transit officers spotted the suspect at the Bloor-Yonge station and arrested him. Toronto Police then laid charges.

Since it launched last month, the SafeTTC app has been downloaded more than 1,600 times and more than 200 reports have been submitted. Of those reports, 24 were “sexual/indecent in nature” and 43 were harassment, the Toronto Transit Commission says.

The app is an “off the shelf solution” developed and sold by the firm Elerts from Massachusetts. It’s becoming more popular across Canada and the U.S. and is already used by transit systems in Pennsylvania, Boston, Dallas, Atlanta and San Francisco. It is customized and branded differently for each city.

The company points to the Boston Marathon bombing as a time that overloaded cellphone networks made it tricky to communicate, but people at the finish line used Elerts to share information and photos with police using their app.

“These reports are not anonymous at all”

In Toronto, the app is called SafeTTC. In San Francisco, the same transit app is called BART Watch. BART stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit.

In San Francisco, the app is the target of a lawsuit by a woman who alleges it violated her privacy.

California resident Pamela Moreno launched a class action lawsuit on May 22 against Elerts and the San Francisco transit system alleging the app violates California privacy laws. The lawsuit alleges the app collects users’ personal information, including their unique cellphone identifier and location. Not only does it save GPS data, it also tracks the user’s course, elevation and speed. It also records battery level, which the lawsuit says is “seemingly benign” but in fact can act as a fingerprint used to track consumers.

The lawsuit says tens-of-thousands of Californians have downloaded it and the defendants “have amassed a trove of data through the app.”

The suit compares the Elerts app to “Stingray” devices used by law enforcement in Canada and the U.S. These devices mimic cellphone towers, collecting the unique cellular ID of all phones that ping it, without the user knowing.

The app includes an option to submit an anonymous tip, something both Elerts and TTC told VICE News was truly anonymous.

TTC says if you check “anonymous,” they will not know the source of the information.

Elerts says: “anonymous means that users do not have to submit personal information to use the app.”

According to the lawsuit, if a person submits an anonymous tip, the app still collects their identifying information and saves it to their servers.

“I was pretty shaken”

“As such, these reports are not anonymous at all,” the lawsuit states.

The allegations in the lawsuit have not been proven in court.

BART says it does not use the Elerts system to randomly track users. “We want to make clear we are not using ELERTS system for any other purpose than responding to security and safety reports made by our riders,” the San Francisco transit authority said in a statement.

It says location information is not shared unless the user consents, and the app includes a privacy policy that all users must agree to in order to use the app.

In a statement responding to the lawsuit, Elerts did not dispute that it collects users’ information through the BART Watch app. But this information is disclosed to users, Elerts said.

Toronto Transit authorities say they are “aware of a lawsuit (related to the app) in another jurisdiction that has not yet been tested in court,” a TTC spokesperson wrote in an email. The TTC takes customer privacy “extremely seriously,” she said.

She was at the back of the King streetcar near John and Peter streets, headed west. Her stop was close and she was standing next to the door, leaning against a pole, when the man sitting behind her stood up. She thought he was getting up for the next stop, but instead he pushed himself into her from behind and pushed her into the pole she was leaning against. He mumbled something but she had her headphones in and couldn’t hear it.

She reacted quickly, elbowing him in the stomach and pushing him off of her. She moved away from him and got off at the next stop.

“I was pretty shaken,” Adriaanse told Vice News.

The next day she was still upset, and was questioning whether she should have told the driver what happened.

“I tweeted about it, and a few people encouraged me to report it if I was feeling up to doing so.”

It felt significant, but she didn’t believe the police would be able to do anything about it.

“Someone else mentioned the app, and said that I could report it to them, and then at least it gets recorded as an incident so that when they’re starting to look into this as a holistic problem, it would be part of the data they were collecting. That’s what I opted to do.”

“Am I willing to allow an app to track my personal particular whereabouts at any given moment so that I feel a little bit safer?”

Adriaanse had heard concerns about the app, but no specifics. VICE News sent her the California lawsuit.

“Reading the document, I find that really troubling,” she said.

“I can’t see any benefit to collecting that [data] in terms of making the app function better. Especially given the fact that you’re supposed to be able to submit anonymously.”

She is considering deleting the app if the TTC doesn’t publicly address alleged privacy violations.

“Am I willing to allow an app to track my personal particular whereabouts at any given moment so that I feel a little bit safer? No I’m not,” Adriaanse said.

She believes the TTC should be credited for implementing the app, and hopes privacy concerns can be addressed without losing access to the app altogether. Raw data on the number of assaults on public transport collected by the app is important, she added.

Elerts says its product is becoming increasingly popular and boasts a customer retention rate of 100 percent.

Elerts couldn’t say how many sexual assault charges have resulted from their app because they aren’t involved after police lay charges. But the company says sexual assault and harassment on transit systems is unfortunately a daily occurrence, according to their customers.