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T defends automated fare system against privacy concerns

The uneasy exchange of personal information for convenience is unavoidable under the MBTA's upcoming automated fare collection system, T officials said yesterday, a fact that has long ruffled activists concerned that the system will compromise privacy.

Scheduled to be installed at every subway station and on every bus by late next year, the new system will phase out tokens by allowing riders to pay for their trips with a single swipe of designated fare cards.

Certain cards, dubbed CharlieCards, can be registered in riders' names or linked to bank accounts in a debit system similar to a Massachusetts Turnpike Fast Lane pass.

For registered users who volunteer their names and bank account information, the system will automatically record where and when those riders boarded a bus or train -- a concern to privacy advocates because that information could be available to lawyers if they obtain a court subpoena.

Yesterday, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said it would be impossible for riders to enjoy the convenience of card registration and automatic debiting and still remain anonymous, emphasizing that registration for those services is voluntary. Riders will still be able to purchase passes anonymously, without the debiting option. They ''don't have to volunteer personal information," he said.

Pesaturo said the fare-collection system is set up to collect information about where and when registered users are riding in order to properly assess fees. Under the law, that information could become available to lawyers and federal investigators but would not be disseminated to other agencies, he said.

Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said yesterday that she is pleased with privacy provisions drafted by T officials but warned that users who register with the new fare-collection system will sacrifice privacy for convenience.

''We feel like the T has made a good-faith effort," said Rose, noting that ACLU representatives have met with T officials about privacy concerns. ''The T is not and should not be in the business of collecting data for government and other agencies. That is not their job."

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