=== The TFL Oyster Card: Using it, being tracked by it ===

==== Introduction ====

For those outside London, the Oyster Card is an electronic card that is used for travel around London (mostly on the Tube and buses). In short, the card can be "charged up" with a travel card (that gives unlimited travel for a period of time) or with 'pre-pay' credit. To ride on the Tube, one holds the card against a yellow pad on the ticket barriers. The barrier then reads the card and opens the gate. On exit from the tube system, the user does the same thing, but the barrier deducts the cost of the journey from the credit on the card (if it's pre-pay). For buses, all journeys cost the same, so on simply waves their card over the yellow pad when boarding the bus.

It should be noted that the Oyster computer logs all journeys. For tube journeys this includes start and end stations and times, for buses, the route on which the bus was boarded and the time (and possibly the location of the stop, depending on the bus type).

===== Update, 20th April, 2006 =====

While researching this page, I found very little real, verifiable facts on the Internet (imagine my suprise!). I decided I should do something about this, so sent a letter to the Oyster Central Customer Services asking various questions. For anyone interested in Oyster and it's privacy issues, I'd urge you to read the request and response at OysterCardRFI. The information given to me was released under the Freedom of Information Act, so really ought to be factual. There are some alarming facts, but also some good things in there.

==== General Use ====

For most people, the Oyster Card is a very convenient, safe way to carry a valid ticket for travel in London. If you have a travel card and lose your Oyster, then it can be replaced. Indeed, even pre-pay credit can be recovered (although I've yet to actually hear of that happening). Also, since you keep the Oyster card between days or tickets, the vast majority of people scrounging or touting travel cards at station entrances have disappeared.

Certainly for occasional users, the Oyster Card is a real benefit. Firstly, journeys are discounted over the normal paper ticket price. Secondly, since the journeys you make simply chip away at your pre-pay credit, there's no need to fiddle with change or ticket machines or queue at the ticket window - just wave the card over the reader and get moving. I've personally had an Oyster Card since early January 2004. I've found it to be incredibly handy, and whilst I know the dangers of them (see below), much prefer them to their paper counterparts.

==== Scary Stuff (Tracking and Surveillance) ====

The technology that makes the Oyster Card work is called RFID. Essentially, there's a chip in the card that is activated by radio waves. Once activated, it transmits information to a receiver. In short, when you hold the card over a yellow reader, the reader is sending out radio waves which activate the card. The reader then receives the signal from the card, and then knows the serial number of the Oyster Card, so can open the barriers and let you travel.

RFID technology is pretty new really. Oyster is deliberately designed to be 'low power' and short range. In other words, you have to put your card within a few millimetres of the reader for it to work (although it'll work through your wallet, or even a bag). Things get more scary when you consider someone turning up the power on their 'reader'. This could activate all Oyster Cards in a room, meaning someone would know the ID numbers of all those Oyster Cards.

In principle, this doesn't sound too bad. So what if 634527382 was there? Of course, if the people operating their illicit reader could look up the Oyster Card details, they they may know it was John Smith, of 32 Hollingdon Road. Even if they don't ever get to look up a card's owner, they will still know if a given card returns to a location. If they have numerous readers in public places, then they'll know how a given card moves around the city.

Taking the 'what if' paranoia out of it for a moment, right now TFL know where every Oyster Card holder goes on a daily basis. It's easy to infer someone's home locality from this information, possibly going so far as to infer work, favourite friends and socialising locations. In short, if you have an Oyster Card, TFL have some idea of your habits and the places you've been in London.

TFL use this data to determine traffic volumes and flows around the transport network. This is useful information when planning where to put tube extensions, or higher capacity. In other words, they absolutely are analysing the patterns of behaviour on Oyster Cards.

Worse than this, TFL hand Oyster travel information to the police (see OysterCardRFI for information about just how liberally and frequently they do this!). In short, Big Brother really does know where you go, when and for how long. They know who you are and where you go each day. They also have an extensive CCTV camera system, with Body Scanners keeping an eye out for 'bombs' they can even get a nice picture of you and your iPod.

==== The Unregistered Oyster Card ====

With all these privacy concerns, it's little wonder that many commentators have expressed concerns (a few to start with: Register, Independent, Blog, Samizdata and so it goes on...).

TFL responded with the 'no registration' Oyster Card. This is half a solution to the problem - there's no need to give TFL any information about yourself. You simply pay the £3 deposit for the card, then charge it up with cash. Seemingly there's no way TFL would ever know who you are (although they'll get your face and iPod with all that camera technology they have).

That's of course apart from any information you may 'leak' to them. For example, if you ever use a bank card to pay for top-up credit, you can bet that gets tied to your Oyster record for ever*.

Incredibly, TFL make you register to replace a broken unregistered card. I just found this out today, when I found my unregistered card had snapped in my pocket (Conspiracy Theory: My old registered one lasted over two years of worse treatment without a hitch). I went to the window, and was told I had to fill out a form. The form states that you have to provide ID when handing in the form. Something like a bank card, recent utility bill, passport etc. There's no good reason for this - apart from to register you by the back door.

In short, if your unregistered card needs replacing, you have to give every last possible bit of information to TFL (including name, address, date of birth, telephone number, Mother's maiden name and an estimate of the credit left on your card). Worse than that, your replacement card is tied the old one - in other words, your replacement card is a registered Oyster Card - it's no longer an unregistered one!

Also, if you decide you've finally had enough of your Oyster Card, you can get a refund for the £3 deposit. The only way to do this is to send it back to TFL. They'll then send you a cheque for £3. Again, that will effectively register all those journeys you made with the card. They may not have known who you were when you travelled, but they know now you're leaving London.

Update: Since March 19th, you can apparently get refunds at a ticket window. However, if the card has ever had anything other than cash deposits, then you have to send away for your refund. Non cash deposits are credit card top-ups, as well as having money transferred from another Oyster card to it (eg. if your card stops working and you get it replaced).

==== Travelling Anonymously with an Oyster Card ====

Short Answer: This is impossible. You can do a few things to make it harder to see where you've been though.

Long Answer: Follow this 'simple' procedure:

  1. Walk up to a ticket window, buy an Oyster Card with cash (for example, handing over £10 will pay the £3 deposit and give you £7 credit)
  2. Use your Oyster Card as you like, topping it up as necessary
  3. After a period of time (defined by your paranoia and wealth), use up as much credit on your card as you can. Visit a ticket window and get a refund for any credit and the £3 deposit.
  4. Go to step (1) and repeat as necessary

I suppose another way to 'confuse' the recording systems would be to swap old cards around your friends. That way, you'd inherit their old cards, adding different travel habits to the profile. You then pass it on to someone else, and so it goes on. Note though this means your travel history remains in active use, and so if you inherit a card from someone 'dodgy' you may get associated with them. Presumably you have an alibi though, right?

==== My Two Pence ====

My take on this is that the Oyster Card is designed to be a way to track your movements around London. If it were simply to predict traffic volumes, there would never be any need to register people (or surreptitiously tie travel information to a person and their home address).

Here's something fun: Type 'privacy' into the 'Ask Oyster' search box. You'll get no results back!

That said, Oyster is a really useful thing. I'm going to continue to use it, but will be swapping my unregistered cards pretty frequently (and as soon as I can, now I've had to register my otherwise unregistered card!).

* "I read it on the Internet" (and can't find the link). Some more info at OysterCardRFI


Not happy...to say the least

There is a giant rant coming and I apologise in advance for being too melodramatic, but I simply can't resist. (:mrgreen:) I got an Oyster yesterday. It seemed all too easy. I was impressed at first as I was happy that I did not have to register, the last thing I needed was to be spammed by a bloated and incompetent company trying to sell me something I have no choice but using. Seeing as pay as you go fares have become extortionate it is a convenient push towards Oyster and I felt it was worth a try. Very quickly a pattern started to emerge. I started to see an "invasive Americanised demographic consumer rape scenario" as emphasised by the RFID tracking and the use of your private details to be issued to state authorities whenever requested. The obligatory £3 charge is outrageous and it is only a tool to steer you towards registration as pointed out by this great site. I imagine your council charging you a separate amount to bill you, that would be unacceptable right? This is the same and worse, why could they have not built that charge into the new pricing structure and make Oyster cards free? They want your details pal, and you have to PAY THEM for the privilege, it is a sick and abusive condition. (:sad:) And your details? The excuse is that all this information will make the transport system more efficient. Once you find out that the "system" is more important than the individuals rights you have an entered an area of subjugation. It should be resisted. How convenient terrorists have made it for our countries to impose themselves on us as if we are potentially dangerous inconveniences that need help. My middle finger stands proud. (:biggrin:)
The price we have to pay for our safety is our freedom. Just listen to that people. Oyster seems totally innocuous, it is hyped as being the best thing since sliced bread. I guess if you take it at face value it is. This is how it all starts. You will be told that ALL these little things are to HELP you. In fact it is the exact opposite. These are corporations and states helping themselves. A network of individuals that are completely dissociated from each other and society and therefore totally oblivious to the regime they are forcing upon themselves and society in general. Let the drama roll! Hitler (dead) would relish this type of subjugation without direct violence, much less messy and far more productive.
I hear you say: Oh why make a big fuss about it? This is the way things are going. Accept everything. If you treat life like that then you have become human "fois gras". (:cry:) You will be stuffed with the consumerism you so desire and therein lies your slavery and your nothingness. You are nothing and have never been anything and will never make a point of being more than nothingness. You are in essence devoid of spirituality and in a sense you are already dead. You are the perfect consumer living in the perfect system. Wake up now people!!! (:lol:)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 2006-05-03 13:14.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 2006-05-28 11:25.

(:evil:) you also cannot buy a monthly travelcard on an unregistered oyster card, only a weekly. Imagine how pissed off I was when I discovered this last Thursday after drawing out £100 for a monthly... only £26 of which I could spend at the time and then the remaining money burned a hole in my pocket all day! (it was gone by Friday morning) (:frown:)


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 2006-06-21 09:35.
£3 supportable (was: Not happy...to say the least)

> The obligatory £3 charge is outrageous

One can overdraw a card by upto the difference between the miminum fare from the origin station (£.100) and the maxium single journey charge (£3.50).Adding this, £2.50, to the cost of manufacturing and distributing the card, and you will not see much left from £3.00 if somone deliberately overdraws and discards.

Also, it must have some impact on touts, as anyone who has a card with a near zero balance and a daily capped ticket will still expect £3 from the tout, even if the final user could, but would find it a nuisance, recover that £3.

Incidentally, for a site that seems to be about privacy issues, I am suprised to see that you are handing out cookies that don't seemto be necessary for actual operation of the site.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 2006-08-26 13:42.
Tube stations

My Oyster card stopped working on my way out of Richmond tube station. I went to the ticket office, and they said (in a very unhelpful tone), "Yeah it's not working. You have to go to a Tube station to get that fixed." So what the heck did I just come out of?

Submitted by Anonymous Cow (not verified) on Tue, 2007-02-27 15:46.
Richmond is a mainline

Richmond is a mainline railway (called 'National Rail' since privatisation) which is also served by London Underground and London Overground trains (both on the route to Kew Gardens and Gunnersbury).

The point is, the ticket office is operated by SWT (South West Trains), so technically this is not an 'underground' station.

Submitted by simple simon (not verified) on Mon, 2010-10-25 23:29.

Whoever you are, thanks for posting all this information about Oyster!(very helpful) :)

Submitted by Rhi (not verified) on Mon, 2007-07-02 13:33.
Deposit refund

I bought an oyster card last september and I remember paying a deposit of £3. Now I am using a student oyster card, so I tried to get the deposit from my old one. The lady at the ticket office checks the card and shows me a receipt that states that no deposit was paid for the card. I am absolutely sure I've paid the £3. Has anyone a clue what happened?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 2008-03-04 01:26.
deposit refunds

try this...

go to a station with a London Underground ticket office and ask for a full print out of all transcactions. Somewhere in the foot-long print out it might say whether a deposit was made. If so then you have proof that you are entitled to a refund. If not however then it means that someone pocketed the deposit, which is not how things are supposed to be done.

Submitted by simple simon (not verified) on Mon, 2010-10-25 23:23.
could anyone tell me whether

could anyone tell me whether i can use my friends oyster card when they are having a day off....

Submitted by Anonymous Coward (not verified) on Sat, 2008-10-18 18:21.
only if its not registered.

only if its not registered.

Submitted by simple simon (not verified) on Mon, 2010-10-25 23:34.
Actually, yes you can, but

Actually, yes you can, but only if it doesn't have a travel card on it. Not that anyone would actually be able to or bothered to check whether you're using someone else's card.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 2012-03-12 15:14.
So, I am travelling around

So, I am travelling around using my Oyster, I go all over, see different places, visit different people, sometimes I get the tube to work, sometimes I get the bus, sometimes I walk to the tube further away from my house because it is a more pleasent walk...what exactly are you guys worried about Tfl using this information for? I don't think they would get much useful information out of me!! And if they do what are they going to do? Give it to the Police so that they can arrest me for going to Covent Garden for lunch or visiting the Science Museum! Surely if someone is close enough to me to collect information from me using an illegal card reader they could just follow me home!! Also I think your internet activity and possibly your mobile phone activity(if you use one) will be of much more interest to 'your stalkers' then you Oyster card movements!!!

Submitted by Bex (not verified) on Tue, 2009-03-31 12:46.
In principle, this doesn't

In principle, this doesn't sound too bad. So what if 634527382 was there? Of course, if the people operating their illicit reader could look up the Oyster Card details, they they may know it was John Smith, of 32 Hollingdon Road. Even if they don't ever get to look up a card's owner, they will still know if a given card returns to a location. If they have numerous readers in public places, then they'll know how a given card moves around the city.


Submitted by 3freester (not verified) on Tue, 2009-06-02 16:07.
I just built myself an Oyster

I just built myself an Oyster reader,
Very reveiling....

Submitted by Secret Agent (not verified) on Sat, 2009-11-28 04:59.
Guys,.. I topped up my card

Guys,.. I topped up my card with season ticket last week. And today it suddenly stopped working while I was on bus and the driver is so generous to take me to the nearest tube station to check the problem. Well I went the tkt counter told me that the was damaged(!?) .. which I havn't moved over the weekend and adding to my problems it is on my wife's name?! He cannot return the money on the card though it was paid from my bank card?!
Well this is a problem for a family guy!?.. as the cards doen't print the name on the card how the hell we know whose card you are taking with you.
I decided not to use the oyter and buy season tickets from the card machine in the national railway stations.
Probably the oyster card designer is a loner..

Submitted by noto oyster (not verified) on Mon, 2010-06-14 12:10.
need help

Hi, I think that i'k leavng london, and i have 80 pounds in my oyster, it is possible to ge refund? or no please response somebody to me.

Submitted by Ray (not verified) on Thu, 2010-08-12 18:12.
Re: need help

Sure it's possible - just go to a ticket window and ask. You'll probably need ID, or have to get the refund by post, but it's possible to do, and they'll tell you what you have to do.

Submitted by coofercat on Sun, 2010-08-15 21:50.
i was useing a pre pay oyster

i was useing a pre pay oyster card unregisterd..
it had 12 pounds on it , and the bus could not read it ,

i had all my shopping with me,,i walked 20 mins to tube station ,

to be told it was damaged , they point blank refused me a
refund on either the creddit or deposit,,

i sreeamed and ragged theres a 3 pounds deposit on the card,

they told mr only for registered users

so oyster and transport + gouverment lie !!!!

you have to pay a non refundable 3 pounds for a unregisterd card ,

because you cant prove purchase or creddit on card , , ,

had to walk home , was realy pissssssssssssssssssssssed off

Submitted by robert [power (not verified) on Tue, 2010-11-02 14:43.
you cant prove you bought the

you cant prove you bought the card
because they cant get in to it to check
serial number or useage

its just a usless bit of plastic

good for filling cracks in walls with filla ,,

excelent for putting on cpu paste

great for chopping lines up,

best use of all , for flicking it in to the eye
of borris dick head johnson

Submitted by robert [power (not verified) on Tue, 2010-11-02 14:47.
I agree that Oyster cards are

I agree that Oyster cards are a very convenient bit of plastic to have as are Pre-pay cards in general such as the splash card.

They're very popular now and really useful for getting the convenience of a card without the risk of getting into debtor generating overdraft charges.

Submitted by Hayley (not verified) on Mon, 2011-06-06 16:15.
How to get refund of oyster card

i want to know that what is the procedure to get the refund of deposit as well as balancing amount of my oyster card as i am not going to use my oyster card in future. And how many days this procedure takes.
Looking forward for reply .
Thanking You

Submitted by Khushbu(not verified) on Tue, 2011-06-14 08:22.
"lost" oyster cards cannot be refunded £3 deposit

A Lost oyster card is no longer eligible for a refund of the £3 deposit.I found my card again(still in my name) and TFL will not refund the deposit.
They cannot make the card "found" again either.

Submitted by Anonymous Coward (not verified) on Tue, 2011-11-22 17:42.
I think you are wrong

It seems the deposit is already 5 pounds : tlf.gov.uk and Oyster Card Info

Submitted by Anonymous Coward (not verified) on Sun, 2014-07-20 23:55.