Travel cards: Tokyo vs. London

NB: this post is largely incorrect… at least in the fact that actually the systems are much more similar and becoming even more so. I am not going to change the post (because being wrong is part of research and learning), but will direct you to a more recent post here.

Tokyo and London both have pre-paid smart card systems for travel on public transport. They look superficially similar but also have crucial differences.

JR East's Suica card
JR East's Suica card

In fact, first of all, there are several smart cards from different railway companies in Japan. Each of main privatised regional railway companies has one: the most common in Tokyo are the Suica card operated by JR Higashi (East Japan Railways) and the Pasmo card issued by a collection of smaller private railway companies as well as the TOEI subway, bus and Tokyo Metro systems. JR NIshi (JR West) and JR Toukai (JR Central) also have their own cards, ICOCA and TOICA respectively. They are all now pretty much interchangeable and Suica, which is the oldest system in operation since 2001, in particular can now be used for other kinds of payments in station shops and the ubiquitous Lawson chain of konbini (convenience stores) elsewhere in the city. It also now has a keitai denwa (mobile phone) enabled version in which the card is virtually present as a piece of phone software.

Great! It’s convenient, costs no more than buying tickets separately and if you forgot to bring any cash for your morning paper, you can use Suica for that too.

So, just like London’s Oyster card then?

Well, no.

TfL's Oyster card
TfL's Oyster card

The Oyster card, issued by Transport for London, looks pretty much the same and operates along similar technological lines, but because it also requires the user to register using a verifiable name, address and telephone number, with which the card is then associated, it is effectively also a tracking system, which is gradually producing an enormous database of movement surveillance. And of course this has not gone unnoticed to the UK’s police and security services who have reserved the right to mine this database for reasons of ‘national security’ and detection of crime. If you lose your card or have it stolen, then not only do you lose your £3 deposit, you’d better tell the authorities too or you might end up having some criminal activity associated with your name on the database.

Suica cards, on the other hand, can be bought from any ticket machine, require no deposit and no registration, and it doesn’t matter if you lose them, or leave the country, even for several years.

Tokyo and London’s transport systems have both experienced terrorist attacks so there’s no particular reason why Japan’s authorities shouldn’t have demanded a similar database (if you accept the UK’s reasoning). Tokyo also has a far more extensive, complex and multiply-owned transport infrastructure. Surely this must inevitably lead to an insecure and out-of-control system where disaster is inevitable.

So in which of the two cities does the transport system work far more efficiently? And where is that you are actually less likely to be a victim of crime, and feel safer?

I’ll give you a clue – it isn’t London.

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

10 thoughts on “Travel cards: Tokyo vs. London”

  1. One quick point, David. It is possible to get anonymous Oyster cards in London. That is, without registering any personal details. The catch is that, if you lose it, you can’t get your credit refunded.

  2. And actually, conversely, it is possible to get a registered high credit Suica card too. So maybe the comparison wasn’t so great! When I meet the Japan Railway security people here in a few weeks I will have to ask them about personal data.

  3. Unregistered travel cards are a bit more difficult to link to individuals but not that much more with access to the right databases. Most people have routines, so for example just looking at travel patterns in many cases the area of work and home (and regular pub) can be identified. Then you can associate CCTV images with the card (especially in London tube stations and buses). You can also pattern match location of use of the travel card with mobile phone locations to identify individuals. Also, in the US, Stanford researchers successfully linked commuting patterns with census data to identify associated houses.

    See (comment #5 link to the Stanford research).

    I also included a few other related links in

    br -d

  4. That’s all possible – and my generalisations in this post are wildly incorrect anyway!

    I am not sure about how easy it would be to do the triangulation of CCTV image, card use and mobile phone location though. Certainly if you were already looking for someone in particular (i.e. targeted surveillance), this would be possible, however as a matter of mass surveillance, I don’t think it would be easy to make it routine. There’s enough problems interpreting CCTV images, especially when there are thousands of people an hour coming through ticket gates, then neither cell nor GPS location is always very accurate, people have different phones, and they could be using different travel cards (certainly they do in Tokyo where you have a choice of 4 different interoperable cards, and in fact the ticket machines can get confused, or even break down, when people pass a wallet over a reader which has more than one smart card in it! And when I’ve looked at the way the police do this kind of analysis, it can be done forensically (i.e.: reconstruction after the fact), but useful, multiple, real-time tracking? No way. Not yet anyway.

    However, see my newer post on what’s been happening in Tokyo now with the linking of smart cards to consumer surveillance.

  5. Fully agree with your analysis.

    It would be interesting if you find out the retention laws, policies and guidelines for different type of data (traffic and location data in particular) in Japan. The UK of course went further than the European directive with a compulsory 12 months retention period for communications data. Not sure what it is for Oyster data. It may be up to six years as this can be justified for legal reason, and that’s fine for the ICO (substance of a response to a complain I made about retention of data for a closed account at an ISP). ANPR data is retained 2 years in a live search system and six years as a whole. etc.

  6. I’ll be talking to senior Tokyo police on Tuesday, and this area is one of the things I want to address. It’s also possible that I will get to interview the Japan Railways security people – not confirmed yet though.

  7. FYI, from (info from 2006)

    ====== Question 4 ======

    How long is the usage history of an Oyster card retained?

    Response 4 ======

    The usage history of each card is retained on an eight week rolling basis. The information held covers all journeys made using the card, including National Rail journeys (for which an Oyster card is valid), provided that the customer has ‘touched in’ and/or ‘touched out’ as appropriate (for bus and tram journeys customers only need to touch in, for tube, DLR and trains customers need to both touch in and out).

    ====== Question 5 ======

    Is there a way to expunge this history?

    Response 5 ======

    You also asked if there was a way to expunge this travel history. There is not. However, after an eight week period (during which it is used for customer service purposes, to check charges for particular journeys, or for refund enquiries) has passed, the travel information recorded against an individual Oyster card is disassociated from it and can no longer be linked to either the card or customer concerned.

    The anonymised journey information is retained for research purposes (eg after eight weeks, TfL would be able to tell that a monthly Travelcard had been used to make a particular journey at a specific time, but would not know which Oyster card or customer was oassociated with that journey).

    [… and in a comment further down the page…]

    Regarding the 8 week rolling period of data retained, it’s the amount of readily avaible data to any single TfL employee with access to a computer, the details are kept on tape for at least 3 years.

    (There are other circumstances where one could attempt to match CCTV images to travel card holders: when the cards are bought and topped up. Much less traffic than at ticket gates.)

  8. Suica usage history *is* recorded in JR’s servers and can be accessed by police. Yes, a garden-variety Suica card does not have any personal identifying information on it, but most locals use some sort of card registered with their name and address (commuter pass, credit card, etc.)

  9. Hi Joe – yes, as I’ve already said, my original post is completely wrong in many ways. Unlike many blogs, this one is essentially an open notebook, which means nothing here is checked final material (see the ‘about this blog’ page). I don’t mind being corrected – that’s one of the points.

    I don’t know many locals who have registered cards by the way. Probably depends on the kind of company we keep! 😉

    And having talked to them today, the police have to jump through a lot of legal hoops to get access, more it seems than in the UK (at least in theory).

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