The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Los Angeles over a program that tracks dockless electric scooters and bikes in real time, potentially allowing the government — or anyone with access to the data — to trace a rider’s entire trip.
The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation allege the program violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act, according to the lawsuit filed Monday, June 8.
“Route data can reveal detailed, sensitive, and private information about riders,” said Hannah Zha, an EFF staff attorney. “This is galling and improper, especially at a time when protests are erupting around the country and privacy protections for those exercising their free speech rights on the streets has taken on new importance.”
Los Angeles requires electric scooter and bike companies to use the tracking software, called Mobility Data Specification, to operate in the city. The data does not include information about the rider, but it tracks when and where a trip begins, the route taken and where it ends. Cross-referencing that data with other publicly available sources would make it trivial to determine who used the scooter, the ACLU’s lawsuit argues.
Rider IDs unknown
“Although MDS does not identify the rider directly, the precision with which it captures the riders’ location information — often to within a few feet — likely allows riders to be identified,” the lawsuit states. “Knowing that a particular trip began at an office building and ended in front of a home, for example, makes the difficulty of identifying the individual rider as simple as knowing their home and work addresses.”
The data set also would reveal information about the rider’s life. For example, it could reveal the route a rider takes to work every day, or if he or she stopped at Planned Parenthood or at a religious institution, the lawsuit states.
“Imagine a person who takes a scooter to a political protest, or even rides past and is captured by one of the many cameras used to document interactions between protesters and police,” the lawsuit states. “With the information LADOT ingests through MDS, that individual ride could be picked out of a haystack of data and handed over to the police, who would then know where the person ended their trip, where they started and the precise route they took.”
In a statement, Colin Sweeney, a spokesman for LADOT, declined to address the specific allegations in the lawsuit.
“We cannot comment on pending litigation, which we also have not seen,” Sweeney said in an email. “The department requires reasonable information about shared vehicles operated by for-profit transportation technology companies and remains committed to ensuring the safety and accessibility of our streets.”
Data used to craft policies
Los Angeles implemented the experimental program to monitor the compliance of the scooters and bikes with city regulations, such as the total number of vehicles allowed by geography, and to provide the city with usage information helpful for developing future policies or infrastructure, such as new bike lanes or street redesigns, according to a staff report.
The tracking software would likely be used to regulate autonomous vehicles, drones and other technologies in the future as well, officials said.
While those uses may not be problematic, the ACLU argues the desire to innovate doesn’t justify “testing the viability of a program that collects sensitive location data without rigorous safeguards that protect against re-identification.” The granular breakdown of each trip is unnecessarily risky for the city’s stated goals, according to the ACLU.
Last year, the Los Angeles City Council instructed LADOT to provide a report within 90 days describing the “specific purposes for the collection and use of each type of data required by MDS” and the length of time the data is retained. The instructions also called for a “transparency report” within 180 days outlining any third-party requests for access to the data and how LADOT responded.
The reports requested by the City Council have yet to be produced, according to the ACLU.
In a letter in May, the civil liberties organization demanded the city halt the data collection until it could be aggregated and anonymized to the “most privacy-protective extent possible.”
Suit asks for halt to data collection
Now, the lawsuit asks a judge to order the city to delete all “precise and identifiable location data,” to stop future collection of the data, and to prohibit the city from requiring companies to comply with the MDS to receive a permit.
Uber and Jump, a bike company, similarly sued Los Angeles over the data requirement in March. The companies, much like the ACLU, argued the city did not need real-time tracking to accomplish its goals.
Source: Orange County Register