Fans of CCTV state conspiracies have been chucking their tin-foil hats out of the pram at recent news that MI5 is after Londoners' travel details. What surprised me isn't that spies want access to the Oyster database, but that they don't already have it.
Lots of people complain about it, but then -- for those of you tuning in from the Commonwealth and the provinces -- complaining about travel is the main hobby of people who live in London. The complaints are twofold: it's easy to forget to swipe the card, and it isn't accepted everywhere. These complaints prove two things: people who forget to swipe and then complain about it when they get caught are idiots -- have you ever walked out of a shop and 'forgotten to pay'? -- and British Rail should never have been broken up.
Neither of these problems are inherent flaws in the Oyster system itself. The first is user error; the second is politician error. Fortunately, the Department for Transport grew a pair and made Oyster compatibility a condition of South West Trains' continued franchise. By 2009, anyone not well served by the Tube network -- ie most South Londoners -- will finally benefit from Oyster.
Currently, MI5 and the police can request a specific individual's travel details. But trawling the database to find potential suspects based on suspicious travel patterns -- anyone willingly using the District Line, perhaps? -- is dangerous, and, well, daft. Smart terrorists will get a fistful of anonymous pay-as-you-go Oyster cards, use them randomly and discard them. Smart spies won't waste the time.