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Opal card case finds commuters have a right to stay anonymous

One commuter argued he shouldn't have to register his Gold Opal card and have his movements tracked to be able to use public transport.

Transport for NSW

Commuters should have a right to stay anonymous on the Transport NSW network.

That's the verdict of the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which last month ruled that Opal card users should be able to opt out of registering their card and having their trip history tracked.

Seniors using a Gold Opal card are currently required to register their card with their name, address and date of birth. The regular adult Opal card can also be registered, but users can opt out of linking their personal information.

NSW resident Nigel Waters argued that being required to register his card meant his travel history could be tracked and linked to his identity. The former board member for the Australian Privacy Foundation said he should have the right to use the transport network anonymously, like other adult Opal card users.

The NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal agreed.

The tribunal found Transport NSW had collected personal information (including travel, billing and location history) that was "not necessary" for ensuring Waters was entitlement to his seniors' card.

A spokesperson for Transport NSW said the department was "in the process of reviewing the decision handed down by the Civil and Administrative Tribunal to determine next steps."

Tap-on/tap-off travel cards like the Opal (and Victoria and Queensland's Myki and Go cards) have certainly made travel more convenient for commuters. But as state transport networks have abolished paper tickets and moved to digital systems, that also has implications for privacy.

In a press release from the Australian Privacy Foundation, Waters praised the tribunal's decision.

"This is major win for privacy rights in NSW," he said. "It clearly raises the bar for all NSW government agencies to apply 'Privacy by Design' principles to complex new data driven systems."

In a statement, a spokesperson for Transport NSW spokesperson said, "Due to the significant financial benefit provided to all concession Opal card holders, especially Gold Opal holders, Transport for NSW requires applicants to submit details of their eligibility for concession travel. Transport for NSW validates and regularly revalidates their ongoing entitlement."

Update, Mar. 15 at 4:22 p.m.: Includes comment from Transport NSW.

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