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'This is creepy': In LA, scooters become the next data privacy fight

OAKLAND — The next big political fight over data privacy may center on an unlikely piece of technology: The scooters currently flying around streets and scattered on sidewalks in cities across the country.

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And as always, it's brewing first in California, the state that last year enacted a landmark consumer privacy law that's roiling Silicon Valley and Washington policymakers.

In Los Angeles, a dispute over how the city manages data embedded in Uber-operated scooters has emerged as a leading-edge privacy issue, foreshadowing a debate over the government’s role in managing sensitive data in a new era of connected transit.

City officials want granular location information on thousands of dockless scooters that are proliferating in the sprawling southern California metropolis. They say it’s critical to know what’s happening in their streets and ensure people are being served equitably.

But Uber's dockless vehicle company, JUMP, is pushing back, arguing that the scale of data Los Angeles wants poses a menace to personal privacy.

In a letter to Los Angeles Department of Transportation manager Seleta Reynolds, the company warned of “an unprecedented level of surveillance, oversight, and control that LADOT would wield over private companies and individual citizens.” (Reynolds responded that those concerns were "uninformed, and therefore, falsely characterize" the situation.)

The clash opens another chapter in a long-running conflict between cities and mobility companies, like Uber, that previously sought to aggressively expand before getting official approval. Uber and Lyft have for years sparred with cities over access to what the companies consider valuable proprietary information.

Skeptics of Uber’s motives note that companies already collect huge amounts of personal data, and not always with positive results: Uber reached a $148 million settlement with California earlier this year over a massive breach of consumer information.

But Uber’s letter hits on a larger concern about government’s expanding role in tracking how people move around. Privacy advocates say that location data is especially sensitive given that it can reveal a person’s movements and private transactions — all the more so given that dockless vehicles can take a person directly to or from their home or business.

“I think it’s the big privacy issue of the next few years,” said Joseph Jerome, policy counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology’s data and privacy project. “This sort of combination of private data in public hands is going to be a bigger and bigger issue, and when it’s geolocation there are some particular questions.”

Former Los Angeles Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who oversaw a nascent committee devoted to privacy, recounted Department of Motor Vehicles officials talking about persistent hacking attempts and police officers improperly accessing state databases.

Gatto warned that when government agencies create public databases, “law enforcement has the ability to access it, and they will.”

A LADOT spokesperson said the agency would share data with the Los Angeles Police Department only when presented with a warrant; the spokesperson did not answer questions about whether information can be revealed in a lawsuit or what restrictions LA imposes on sharing between city agencies.

The debate comes as cities contend with an explosion of scooters: pending applications would put roughly 40,000 more on LA’s roads, according to LADOT chief sustainability officer Marcel Porras.

“We were looking to respond quickly to a new mobility that kind of landed on our streets without permission," he said.

Porras said it’s critical for the city to have a clear view of a rapidly growing means of transit so they can stay on top of the swiftly changing situation on the ground and see if scooters end up “in the LA River.”

City officials also want that data so they can ensure companies are abiding by promises to make the technology available to lower-income residents “in areas of the city where these types of private sector investments may not normally go to first,” Porras said.

“We’re telling companies that if they want to expand their fleet, you have to put more of these units in disadvantaged communities,” Porras said.

Porras said city officials rigorously examined privacy implications and ultimately decided to classify the location information as confidential, meaning it’s not subject to public records requests. He noted that the information LA is collecting does not include personal identifiers.

“We are collecting vehicle information, not information on riders,” he said.

Los Angeles is widely seen as ahead of the curve on data practices. A representative for Mayor Eric Garcetti stressed that record and said the city strives to keep residents informed “as new technologies emerge.”

“Scooter location is tracked in a transparent way that protects user privacy, and the city has a strong track record of improving systems through data while being sensitive to privacy concerns,” spokeswoman Anna Bahr said in a release.

Such assurances, however, have met with skepticism from people who have observed the perils of how government agencies manage data.

“The data’s only as good as its weakest link,” Gatto said. “I do believe this is one of those issues that is at the tipping point,” he added, noting “this gut feeling we all have which is ‘this is creepy — why is government tracking every single move and storing the data?’”

The debate is unfurling as the state wrestles over the scope of the California Consumer Privacy Act, which which emerged last year amid growing concerns about Big Tech’s intrusiveness.

While Los Angeles says the law does not apply to data schema managed by government, the parallel developments demonstrate how data privacy is becoming a paramount consideration for policymakers — particularly the large and growing pool of information on where people are going in a world of increasingly sophisticated and connected transit.

“If you know where people work and pray and play you know a whole lot about them,” Jerome said. “Our concern is [Los Angeles] is asking for a whole lot of data — more frequent and rigorous real-time data than companies collect and provide at the moment.”

The issue isn’t restricted to Los Angeles. In her capacity as an official in the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Reynolds has been sharing LA’s data collection method as a possible model for other cities — an effort that transit experts said was gaining traction far beyond California.

She was among the NACTO officials last year touting a project called Shared Streets that lets private companies and public agencies share transit data. A NACTO representative declined to speak on the record, but the Shared Streets website has a section devoted to assuring that “incredibly sensitive” data would be anonymized.

Last December, a collection of chief data officers of American cities signed an open letter heralding the launch of dockless vehicles and arguing that cities getting their raw data was “essential for internal urban planning.” They argued for “block-level aggregation” that would safeguard privacy and against sharing individual routes.

Hanging over the scooter debate is an intensifying race by major tech and auto companies to deploy autonomous vehicles at scale. Driverless cars traveled more than two million miles on California’s public roads last year, according to the DMV, a fourfold increase from the prior year.

Those vehicles generate enormous amounts of data. As California and the federal government work to shape the rules that should govern their use, transportation experts said LA's foray into managing transportation data could offer a glimpse of what’s to come.

“Scooters are sort of a test case for how transit agencies are going to manage data as you deploy more technology,” Jerome said.

In LA, a city that’s long been emblematic of personal car culture, city officials are bracing for seismic changes brought on by the confluence of shared ridership, autonomous vehicle technology and big data. A LADOT plan repeatedly underscores how the city will need to assert its authority.

“Control is a fundamental aspect of today’s transportation network and will become even more critical in the future,” the plan says, which will mean launching a “technology platform that enables our Department to actively manage the transportation network in ways we previously have not.”

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