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Should rail commuter data be monetised through advertising?

Shadowy figure uses a railway booking platform.
Federal Railways has the personal data of some 3.7 million commuters. SRF-SWI

Swiss Federal Railways is coming under fire for using the personal data of commuters for advertising purposes. The data commissioner and a watchdog group have sounded the alarm bell as the volume of data being harnessed grows.

Thanks to the increasing digitisation of its services, the Federal Railways now has customer names, addresses, age, sex, telephone numbers, photos, details of trips taken and even the geo-positioning of commuters on its database. For example, some 500,000 people have signed up to the EasyRide app that makes it easier to buy fares.

“If you know where someone is working or sleeping, you also know who they are,” Adrian Lobsiger, Federal Data Protection OfficerExternal link, told Swiss Public broadcaster SRFExternal link.

A central database makes a tempting target for hackers to steal and misuse personal information for criminal purposes, warns software developer Volker Birk from the Chaos Computer ClubExternal link, an association of legal hackers.

+ Swiss Federal Railways data privacy policyExternal link

In total, the Federal Railways has data on some 3.7 million customers. It uses some of this personal information for advertising, making a single digit million-franc sum each year. The state-owned company runs targeted advertising banners on its digital platforms.

“The protection of customer privacy in digital offerings and services is a top priority of the SBB. We guarantee that the personal data of our customers will be processed in accordance with the law and the applicable provisions of data protection law,” the Federal Railways said in an e-mailed statement to “Personal identifying data such as name, home address, telephone number and e-mail address are not used.”

The rail operator said it uses third party AdServers (technology platforms that sift data for advertising purposes) to better target adverts and to run campaigns. This processes customer data such as age, place of residence and gender, travel data (time of departure and arrival), unique user ID and IP addresses.

Markus Basler, head of Digital Business for the Federal Railways, told SRF that data is never sold directly to advertisers. Customers are also given the chance to deny the use of their data in this way, an option taken by around 20% of users.

In addition, the Federal Railways never uses customer purchase information in this way and deletes their travel history after 12 months, Basler added. “Our goal is not to maximize earnings with advertising. We only use the data where it makes sense,” he said.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR