Home Subway Security A security breach or plain old fare-beating theft?

A security breach or plain old fare-beating theft?

by Benjamin Kabak

There’s no need for a key to unlock this door. (Photo by flickr user rlboston)

Over the weekend, Pete Donohue of the Daily News wrote about a creative form of fare-beating. Donohue found that every emergency exit door can be unlocked by using the same key, and he discovered that some Transit workers have sold copies of those keys for $27. It’s a pretty outrageous abuse of power, and as one might imagine, the MTA and NYPD are on the case.

Donohue has more:

The Daily News tried out the key at 15 stations across the city, including Yankee Stadium on the B line in the Bronx, Junction Blvd. on the No. 7 in Queens and 68 St. on the Lexington Ave. line. It worked every time…

Cops confiscated 33 gate keys from perps arrested last year for illegally selling trips or other offenses, according to NYPD spokesman Detective William Winning. So far this year, police have arrested 15 suspects with subway gate keys, Winning said.

But the low-level thieves, knowing arrests and brief jail stints are inevitable, plan ahead by stashing away extra keys and starting up their scam all over again. “They all have copies on standby so if they get locked up, when they come back out on the street, they’re still able to make money,” said the Brooklyn man who had a copy. “It’s their bread and butter.”

On Sunday, the News followed up by asking the person-on-the-street and a few outraged politicians their thoughts on the development. Lo, and behold, the story became about terrorism and security breaches. “This could be a major security problem if these keys get into the wrong hands,” James Vacca, head of the City Council’s transportation committee, said.

Councilman Peter Vallone seemed willing to do away with due process over this issue. “This is a serious security breach,” he said. “We know terrorists are planning to attack our subways, and the MTA and NYPD better find these magical morons quickly, and then make them disappear for a year in jail.”

Others blamed those with the audacity to sell the key. “It’s not safe at all,” Mary Ettienne, a Brooklyn resident, said to the News. “They don’t know what kind of people that are buying the key. They’re putting people’s lives in danger.”

But is this theft of fare really a terrorism security issue? It’s possible but exceedingly unlikely that some petty crooks who work for the MTA could wind up selling a key to a terrorist, but it’s far more likely for a terrorist to simply swipe into the system without violating yet another law or raising eyebrows with an illegal transaction to acquire a key. Vallone may be appealing to populist fears over a subway attack, but his comments are divorced from reality. Why would a terrorist go through the trouble of buying a key when the subways are porous as they already are?

The more alarming news here is that Transit employees are selling the keys. Barry Kluger, the MTA’s Inspector General, plans to investigate, and when he finds those responsible, they should — and will — be fired immediately. That’s the bigger story here.

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E. Aron April 26, 2010 - 1:10 pm

I believe you meant to write *or* in the headline.

Brandon April 26, 2010 - 1:15 pm

I hardly think its a big terrorist threat. They dont check the no-fly list when you buy a single-ride metrocard.

SEAN April 26, 2010 - 4:10 pm

Don’t you mean “the no ride list?” LOL

Scott E April 26, 2010 - 1:16 pm

If a station or an entrance is closed for some reason, and the gates are closed and blocking the turnstiles, then I can see a security-related concern. Otherwise, this is simple fare evasion.

Conducting an “investigation” of an inherently flawed system is crazy. There are so many of these locks out there, who-knows how many legitimate copies of the key, and then a bunch of illegal copies. If it’s a concern, they should replace the locks with something a bit more modern (prox card, CyberLock) which is harder to copy, and easy to deactivate. Hotels have been implementing this solution for years.

Josh K April 26, 2010 - 1:24 pm

What the MTA needs to do is move to a controlled blank system. If the blanks required to copy the keys aren’t freely available, then they can’t be copied at any old locksmith. It will drive up the cost and risk involved to make it economically infeasible to spend that sort of money to beat a $2.25 fare.

Re-issue every gate key (which is also probably the same key for other important locks throughout the system). The re-issued keys should be on controlled blanks, with serial numbers and “MTA Property -Do Not Duplicate” in the casting of the blank. Some lock manufacturers might even have a method to build a unique code into the key’s teeth, so that if any copies are made, they can be traced back to who it was issued to.

Marc Shepherd April 26, 2010 - 2:06 pm

With enough money, you could make the emergency exit doors as impregnable as Fort Knox. But is that worth it? I am not so sure that the problem is serious enough to warrant the “solutions” that you are suggesting.

Josh K April 26, 2010 - 4:40 pm

Oh of course not.
I’m also sure if the MTA asked DHS for the money with the right spin, they’d get a counter-terrorism lock replacement grant in no time, that could be contracted to a huge, borderline incompetent defense contractor.
Fare beating isn’t really even that much of problem in NYC compared to other cities.
As everyone else has pointed out, worrying about terrorism in this case is just silly. I’m sure there are much higher statistical chances of a huge train accident than of a terrorist bombing.

Mark L April 26, 2010 - 1:32 pm

This is not a terrorism issue. As mentioned, terrorists would be more likely to pay the fare and try to blend in. Breaking the rules is an easy way to get stopped before accomplishing your goal.

Though, if terrorists really are targeting the subway, I don’t see why they haven’t acted thus far. It’s really not that complex to send a suicide bomber into Times Square or Penn Station during the morning rush. It doesn’t even involve significant logistics. The systems that are in place – and those that have been proposed – would not really do anything to stop such an attack.

Boris April 26, 2010 - 2:48 pm

So far they are being caught before acting.

Alon Levy April 27, 2010 - 5:13 am

This isn’t any different from swipe-selling, except that it’s done by transit employees. If it’s terrorism, then I’m a terrorist every time I lend my pay-per-ride-owning girlfriend my unlimited monthly.

AK April 27, 2010 - 9:21 am

I think you just answered your own question 😉


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