L.A. Program May Violate Privacy

Whether it’s the 405 Freeway from the San Fernando Valley past LAX continuing down to Long Beach, the 5 Freeway through Burbank and into the heart of Los Angeles, or any other traffic corridor connecting the Valley to the surrounding centers of commerce, normally you’re guaranteed to face some of the worst traffic congestion in the country. It’s a reality Californians have learned to live with because transportation – whether it’s a morning commute or a delivery route – drives the economy and our lives in immeasurable ways.

However, as businesses have shuddered their doors and stay-at-home orders remain in effect to curb the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, most travel within the state is at a standstill. Morning commutes are temporarily a forgotten practice, offices belonging to the largest employers in the state have locked their doors, and businesses are adjusting to new challenges created by teleworking. In short, non-essential travel between the Valley, the rest of Los Angeles, and other surrounding areas is at its lowest level in recent memory.

Yet in the midst of all this, when public forums are closed and Californians cannot freely move through the state, the city of Los Angeles is quietly implementing a surveillance technology that could soon impact the daily operations of countless businesses with employees who regularly travel to or through the city.

Under a new program called Mobility Data Specification or MDS, mobility companies must provide the Los Angeles Department of Transportation with access to real-time rider location data in order to receive operating permits. This includes sharing the precise GPS coordinates of where riders begin trips, where they end, and the routes taken. For now, the technology is being used to track dockless bikes and scooters, but LADOT officials have expressed their intention to expand MDS to all ride-hailing and commercial delivery services.

While MDS doesn’t collect rider names, research has vividly shown that it’s easy to discover a rider’s identity based on their location. Unfortunately, LADOT has failed to disclose what, if any, safeguards will keep this sensitive data from being misused or compromised. Such an intrusion of privacy is not only unnecessary — and perhaps a violation of state privacy laws — it could also keep riders who value their personal information from seeking out these convenient modes of transportation.