Los Angeles should abandon Rider Surveillance Program

There are certain days in life when you need an angel. It could be to get you through the pain of a full day without eating because you only had enough to feed your children. Maybe it’s to find your way past the grief of losing a loved one to the virus that’s wreaking havoc on our cities.

We also seek out angels in our most dire moments. George Floyd tragically called out to his angel — his mama, as his life was prematurely taken from him and he went to be with her. My angel came after my sister died. It told me that I had a new road to walk in life toward empowering young people in South Los Angeles with safe alternatives to gang activity.

For many years, my sister Sylvia ran with a local gang, and I was no stranger to that lifestyle either, having been a gang member myself. Living in Compton, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, opportunities to escape gang activity were hard to come by. It took a while, but my sister and I were fortunate enough to put that way of life behind us. When she passed, I felt a call from God to start Sylvia Nunn Angels, an organization devoted to fostering a peaceful community and expanding opportunities for young people to succeed in life.

In addition to organizing after-school programs, taking care of foster children, and hosting food giveaways, we also look for ways to create economic mobility for young people, helping them stay away from the traps of gang activity. I’ve learned that to achieve this goal, young people need access to easy and affordable modes of transportation: to get to school, to practice, to the library, or to work. Few kids in South LA have a parent who can take them where they need to be at all times, and even fewer have their own car, so access to transportation is critical.

Since we recognize the relationship between transportation, safety, and economic mobility, I was concerned when I saw that the City of Los Angeles has started tracking the movements of individual vehicles in real time. Using a tool called Mobility Data Specification (MDS), the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) now requires companies like Uber and Lyft to provide the city with access to rider location data, from the city, from each trip’s start to finish. MDS is currently being tested on dock-less bikes and scooters, but officials have said it will be expanded to all ride-hailing services.

When I hear words like “tracking” and “real time” together with “location data,” alarm bells go off because LADOT hasn’t specified what level of access police will have to this data. MDS doesn’t collect rider names, but it can still be used to identify and intercept someone as they move throughout the city. It sounds like a form of surveillance to me, and I worry that MDS will deter young people from using these convenient and cheap modes of transportation to get to where they need to be.