The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing the city of Los Angeles for its requirement of all scooter companies to provide real time location data of all electric scooters. As well as the city itself, the ACLU are suing the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) stating that their collection of this anonymized geolocation data violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act. All of this is due to LADOT’s creation and use of their Mobility Data Specification (MDS) project.
Los Angeles’s MDS program provides the city with specific locational data on every scooter’s trip. The locational data collected from the scooters includes where the trip starts, every stop and turn taken by the scooter, and where the trip ends. The data collected by the city is anonymized by encoding on the city’s end and stored “free of any personally identifiable information,” according to LADOT’s website. The LADOT also said the data won’t be shared with police without a warrant and won’t be subject to public records requests. The ACLU argues that even if the data is “anonymized”, if it falls into the wrong hands it can be incredibly harmful and still be used to identify specific individuals.
The data does not include the identity of the rider, but that information can be determined in a number of ways. For example, when a trip begins at a home and ends at a sensitive location — such as a therapist’s office, marijuana dispensary, a Planned Parenthood clinic, or a political protest — all the government would need to know is who lives at the house in order to identify the rider and why the rider was making the trip.
After it’s collected, this kind of detailed information can ultimately be lost, shared, stolen, or subpoenaed. If in the wrong hands, it can also result in arrest, domestic abuse, and stalking, as a recent investigation of automatic license plate reader information in California revealed. In other cases, location information in the hands of authorities can stoke racial and gender-based violence.
According to The Verge, LADOT Director Seleta Reynolds said that the city purposely included privacy protections in the regulations in order to give them “the force of law.” It is understandable for city officials to want to collect locational data on the scooters because it allows them to regulate the usage of tens of thousands of scooters that have suddenly flooded their streets. Whether it be hot spots of where scooters are parked, if the scooters are blocking anything, common route patters, all of this data is collected by LA for the purpose of beneficial management and organization the city says. However, the ACLU argues that there is a way to regulate scooters in cohesion with traffic laws and mobility issues without collecting real time data from every single scooter user.
“The government’s appropriate impulse to regulate city streets and ensure affordable, accessible transportation for all should not mean that individual vehicle riders’ every move is tracked and stored without their knowledge,” said Mohammad Tajsar, senior staff attorney at the ACLU SoCal. The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU Foundations in both Northern and Southern California in collaboration with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the law firm Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP. The lawsuit is seeking to challenge Los Angeles’s 2019 micromobility pilot program which is the legislature which made MDS mandatory for all electronic scooter companies in LA. While LA claims this data is necessary for their department of transportation to maintain effective traffic flow and safety, there is serious concern that this data allows LA mass surveillance over their citizens, breaking basic and fundamental privacy laws.