Over the last few months, The Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), campaign groups, and various scooter companies have been engaged in debate around a burgeoning city-planning and privacy issue. LADOT is requesting those firms to provide real-time location data of their scooters, so the department can see which companies may be ignoring new rules that limit the number of vehicles, and make sure the scooters are also being made available to lower-income residents. Privacy experts say the limits of how that sensitive data can then be used for other purposes is not exactly clear.
Now Uber, which operates a scooter service called JUMP and which doesn’t want to comply with the requests, has been given a shorter permit to operate its scooters in Los Angeles.
“Under current and proposed privacy legislation in the United States, private companies are expected to demonstrate specific data security and privacy capabilities when dealing with personal information, including GPS data,” an Uber spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement. “Despite repeated attempts by Uber and consumer advocacy groups, we've received no assurance that LADOT is willing or able to meet the same standard in protecting the privacy of our customers.” Uber said it was granted a one-month, provisional permit for its JUMP scooters rather than a full-year license.
Meanwhile Lime, another company with scooters in Los Angeles, told Motherboard in a statement more supportive of the location data plans that it had been granted a one-year permit.
“Los Angeles serves as a valuable model for other communities and is a real solution to easing congestion, curbing pollution and increasing mobility options. We look forward to serving more of the city and working closely with neighborhoods to ensure safe and convenient transportation for riders and pedestrians alike,” a Lime spokesperson told Motherboard in an email.
Bird also said it had been granted the one-year permit.
"From the beginning, Bird has been steadfastly committed to the privacy of our riders. We want to partner with cities as they build and improve their infrastructure so that e-scooters and other micromobility options are available and safer for more people, while ensuring the privacy of our riders. We look forward to continuing to work with LADOT and other cities on the responsible implementation of mobility management tools and data sharing,” a Bird spokesperson told Motherboard in an email.
Lyft, which has its own scooter service, acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide a statement in time for publication.
Despite privacy concerns it’s still important to bear in mind companies’, and in particular Uber’s, record of pushing into new markets while ignoring or bypassing regulatory measures designed to protect cities and citizens.
An LADOT spokesperson told Motherboard in an email "LADOT's work with mobility providers is designed to inspire innovation, keep people safe, keep people moving, and minimize clutter. The City has a strong track record of using data to fulfill our mission, while being sensitive to privacy concerns—we’ve been named the nation's number one Digital City for that work. We maintain a need for scooter data to manage and regulate for-profit vehicles on the public right-of-way to protect and keep everyone traveling safe on our streets—no matter the mode."
HOW LOS ANGELES WANTS TO COLLECT SCOOTER LOCATION DATA
Last year, LADOT published on GitHub a standard for ridesharing, scooter, and other mobility companies to follow to provide data to the department. One reason was for consistency of what that data would look like.
“There’s no way L.A. can manage x number of companies giving us data in different formats, at different intervals, in whatever fields they want to give us,” Marcel Porras, chief sustainability officer for LADOT, previously told IEEE Spectrum.
The real-time location data from the scooters will be paired with services from a data aggregator and visualizing company called Remix.
“How many scooters are on your streets at any given time? How is new mobility affecting first/last mile connections in your community? Remix brings data from mobility providers into a single platform to give city leaders the context they need to get answers quickly,” Remix’s website reads.
Tiffany Chu, co-founder of Remix, told Motherboard in an email "We at Remix are excited to help LA and many other cities use data to make better decisions, and empower micromobility programs to be successful in the context of the larger transportation ecosystem." "Key examples of how we've seen cities use this data include: 1) planning better infrastructure using insights from real trip route traces (e.g. investing in protected bike lanes where the community needs it the most), 2) assessing historical and near-real-time compliance with mobility permit regulations, 3) ensuring people aren't riding in restricted zones, 4) ensuring fleets are sufficiently maintained for safety reasons, and 5) helping to plan transportation services to complement each other," she added.
The dialogue between LADOT, scooter companies, and privacy groups really kicked off in the latter half of last year, when Uber and campaigners the Center for Technology and Democracy (CDT) sent letters to LADOT voicing their concerns over the data requests.
“We've been engaging with staff at LADOT on mobility data collection and use since we sent our letter late last fall. Both sides have a lot to learn from each other,” Joseph Jerome, policy counsel for privacy and data at CDT, told Motherboard in an email. “They have heard from CDT that when it comes to collecting and using lots of sensitive location information, we believe LADOT will need to be more transparent about its thinking in general and its responses to privacy and security concerns as the scooter pilot program progresses.”
Jamie Williams, staff attorney at campaign group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told Motherboard in an email “We’re concerned that LADOT is moving forward on collecting data despite not having answers ready regarding its plans for protecting it.”
“Location information, especially aggregated over time, is extremely sensitive. Human mobility patterns are highly unique, so this data can be used to determine the identity of real people, based on where they go each day,” Williams added.
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Williams said the EFF has asked LADOT about its plans to safeguard the data once it has been collected, and whether it will be available to, say, ICE, or municipal partners outside of Los Angeles. (An LADOT spokesperson previously told Politico that it would provide the Los Angeles Police Department with scooter location data when presented with a warrant.)
“We have yet to receive answers, despite that pursuant to the current schedule, LADOT will start enforcing the new data-sharing requirements next month,” Williams said, adding that many Los Angeles residents may not even be aware that LADOT will soon have access to granular location data.
But this real-time location data collection and tension stretches beyond scooters, as more devices and transportation services are likely to fall under the same sort of demands more generally across the country.
Jerome from CDT added “These conversations are about much more than scooters. Mobility data is incredibly valuable to public officials and private companies, and the policies around LADOT's data specification will impact public infrastructure far beyond scooters like autonomous vehicles, drones, and day-to-day city services.”
This piece has been updated with comment from Remix and LADOT.
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