Rent a Scooter in L. A. and the City Government Knows Your Every Move
LOS ANGELES — Renting an electric scooter should not give the government the right to trace your every move — where you start, where you end, and all stops, twists, and turns in between.
But that’s the situation in the City of Los Angeles where electric scooter rental companies are required to provide real-time and historic GPS tracking data to city officials.
Today, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundations of Southern and Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the law firm Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP filed a lawsuit charging that the city’s requirement of scooter tracking data violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
“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. “There are better ways to keep ride-share companies in check than to violate the constitutional rights of ordinary Angelenos who ride their vehicles.”
Beginning in late 2017, communities across California witnessed a near-overnight invasion of motorized electric scooters on city sidewalks. Equipped with tiny motors, batteries, and sleek insignia, they introduced a new dockless mode of transit for smartphone-equipped consumers. But as the popularity of the scooters quickly rose, so did complaints over cluttered sidewalks and interference with public right-of-ways.
In Los Angeles, the Department of Transportation (LADOT) adopted a software tool — the Mobility Data Specification (MDS) — to use GPS data to automatically track the precise movement of every scooter rider. In order to get permits to operate in the city, the electric scooter and bike rental companies had to agree to use MDS on all their vehicles and give LADOT access to their GPS coordinates.
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.
In November last year, the L.A. City Council passed a motion requiring LADOT to report on “specific regulatory purposes for the collection and use of each type of data required by MDS.” That report was due in three months, but to date, no detailed report has been issued.
“Route data can reveal detailed, sensitive, and private information about riders,” said EFF Staff Attorney Hannah Zhao. “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.”
The lawsuit, brought against the City of LA. and LADOT, seeks an injunction to end all prospective collection, storage, or maintenance of precise location data acquired through MDS.
“Particularly in this era when personal privacy and surveillance are top of mind, restricting the collection of sensitive geolocation information is among the most important ways of constraining potential government misconduct,” said Timothy J. Toohey of Greenberg Glusker. “We are proud to partner with the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in bringing this lawsuit that seeks to require Los Angeles to respect riders’ personal information while continuing to innovate for the future of transportation in this city.”
Read the lawsuit here: https://www.aclusocal.org/sites/default/files/sanchez_v_ladot_-_complaint.pdf