View from the Street: The great train (data) robbery

Katie Stanton

View from the Street: The great train (data) robbery

As a self-confessed people watcher and sufferer of semi-severe travel sickness (reading on the train makes me throw up), there is nothing much better to do on my commute than delve into the lives of other passengers. I have no shame and will happily stare blankly at strangers. I used to make up stories about them: who are they, where are they going, what do they do? Now I don’t have to.

It turns out that the lady next to me is Karen Samuels. She is from Linlithgow, she works at Edinburgh College, she’s having shepherd’s pie for tea and she doesn’t very much like her husband’s tone just now. And that gentleman over there? He’s a journalist, he commutes from Falkirk High and he’s knee-deep in his overdraft, but not really bothered about it.

How do I know this, you might ask? Believe it or not, I am not the modern incarnation of Sherlock Holmes – just a nosy parker. And, honestly, my fellow commuters are easy targets.

If not brazenly messaging their most personal details in front of the whole carriage, I have found that some passengers happily display their ID lanyards (name, department, job title etc) for the world to see. And that’s not to mention the people who keep their driving licence in their phone cases, broadcast loud phone conversations with their partners across the carriage, or have a full portable work station set up so that I can really get into the nitty gritty of private client details.

In a world so worried about data protection online, we’re forgetting the real-life, shifty-eyed snakes lurking over our shoulders. There are data breaches left and right – it seems like one a week at the moment – and consumers are up in arms. Google, Facebook, BA, Heathrow – no company is immune. But no one considers the sheer volume of information gatherable from a sneaky peek across the carriage.

Louis Menand recently wrote a piece for the New Yorker entitled, “why do we care so much about privacy?” And I was left thinking, do we? We’re sharing more than ever, more carelessly than ever. It seems to me like we’re conducting a worrying amount of important life admin in full view of the prying public. In the social media age, perhaps we want to parade ourselves in full public glare?

The EU’s GDPR came into force in May, giving users greater control over the information that online companies collect about them. But, with no regulations for lurkers, what’s to stop little old me compiling a dirty dossier on my fellow commuters?

I get on the same carriage everyday and at least ten people do the same. If I wanted, I could gather shockingly detailed profiles on each one of them. Not just generic information, but real information, personal insights about their relationships, future plans and inner worries. Maybe I’d approach them like a creepy mystic Meg to fool them into thinking I can read their minds.

Not that it doesn’t brighten my day to see people typing “hahahaha” with a vacant look on their faces. Or take a cursory glance at some erotic literature on the Kindle of a middle-aged businesswoman at 8am on a Tuesday. Or listen in to a raging domestic about whether you and Jules are heading to the in-laws for Christmas or jetting off to Tenerife.

But take this as a word of advice: just be careful, turn your brightness down, take your lanyard off. And maybe don’t type your full bank account login while it’s standing room only on a busy passenger train.

Instead, peel yourself from your phone for a few minutes, put down that novel, cast your eyes upon the people of your commute and see what you find. Or maybe just look out the window?

Katie Stanton is a researcher with Charlotte Street Partners.