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Lawsuit alleges BART spies on riders via app

Agency denies that they track user location

A BART Police cruiser parked near a station. Daniel Schwen

A lawsuit filed by an Albany resident in U.S. District Court Monday claims that BART spies on customers who downloaded one of its mobile apps, BART Watch, which allows riders to discreetly report criminal or suspicious activity directly to police. The plaintiff seeks $5 million in damages.

BART denies the accusation.

Pamela Moreno, plaintiff in Moreno v. San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District, claims that, in part, the agency:

Released a mobile application masquerading as a transit app that secretly collects Californian’s unique cellular numeric identifiers and physical location. [...] Defendants have been using it to secretly collect Californians’ unique mobile device identification numbers [...] and to periodically track their precise locations.

Moreno and her attorneys see BART’a mobile tech as a Big Brother-like move constantly keeping tabs on where riders’ phones—and thus riders themselves—are.

But via a Monday press release BART said that the plaintiff misunderstands how the app and its technology work and are being applied:

An app’s user location information is only available if the user selects the option to share their location information. And then, BART only receives the user’s location when the user is reporting an incident.

There is no default setting- the user needs to agree. For all users, sharing their contact information and location information is optional.

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BART also notes that the suit compares the app tech to Stingrays, which are “cell phone surveillance devices that [...] trick cell phones in the area int transmitting their locations and identifying information,” according to the ACLU.

However, according to a BART spokesperson, the transit agency “does not have a Stingray system.”

The contentious app, BART Watch (which is perhaps an unfortunate name under the circumstances), launched in 2014. According to the agency, it allows “allows you to quickly and discreetly report criminal or suspicious activity directly to BART Police.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Tens of thousands of people have downloaded it,” and other transit agencies have similar apps.