As VNU Newswire reported yesterday, London's tube operator has admitted it has been forced into a costly upgrade of its ticketing system because of a simple security hole that enables people to travel the network for free.
The existence of the problem, which is caused by the magnetic stripe on London Underground tickets rather than any inherent vulnerability in the ticket barriers themselves, was first made public by a regional daily newspaper in July.
The article said that ticket touts had become aware of the problem and were selling old tickets for up to £50.
While London Transport (LT), the Tube's publicly owned administrator, had hoped that information about the security hole would not become widespread, a spokesman admitted to VNU Newswire that it was now in the process of upgrading its ticketing systems to rectify the problem.
But he added that LT does not plan to introduce more secure tickets in the form of smartcards until late 2002, exposing its £1 billion ticket income to the possibility of a massive rise in ticket fraud - which already runs at £25 million a year.
He could also provide no details on cost or timescales for completion of the new system, while the firm's technology supplier, Californian ticketing and defence specialist, Cubic Corporation, refused to comment on the situation.
Although both the ticket barriers and ticket printing machines are manufactured by Cubic, LT said it was taking full responsibility for fixing the problem and was not planning legal action against the supplier.
The security hole enables holders of two year old tickets to pass through Tube security barriers undetected because they register as valid. This makes fraudsters difficult to catch and LT unable to determine of the scale of the activity.
Remarkably, LT acknowledged that it had known about the problem for years and simply tried to cover it up. Its spokesman said it had "been aware of the problem since the UTS [automated barriers] were installed" - more than a decade ago.
He added: "LT has taken no action in the past - we considered the potential for fraud to be fairly minimal. Also, to make the technical change was not considered economical."
Ian Hugo, assistant director of Millennium bug pressure group, Taskforce 2000, and an expert on date related computer problems, said that the forced upgrade would "be a very considerable exercise because of the reprogramming involved. I doubt whether a distribution system exists to get new software into the ticket barriers".
He added: "This raises questions about the security of other magnetic strip based systems."
Steve Thomas, a bank security specialist, also described the flaw as "pretty careless" and added that similar weaknesses would not be found in bank magnetic stripcards. While the memory of magnetic strip cards was small, he explained, it was enough to include a full date.
Although police sources said they had "heard" about the problem, they declined to comment on it in any detail, stressing it was a matter for LT.
The entire tube ticketing system is now owned and managed by a private sector consortium under the remit of LT.
TranSys' members include IT services supplier, EDS; Cubic; smart cards expert, ICL; and engineering consultancy, WS Atkins and they have a 17 year license to design, build and maintain the new smartcard ticketing system, which is due in late 2002 at the earliest.
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