Group Criticizing Mobility Data System Includes Uber, Others

When Los Angeles set up a new system for collecting data from — and communicating rules to — emerging mobility companies, Uber refused to comply and lost its permit. Now, it's backing a group criticizing the data system.

by / March 4, 2020
Shuttestock/CarterAerial

A new group formed by Uber, community advocacy groups and others has come out against Mobility Data Specification, the popular system for opening two-way communication between mobility companies and local government.

Communities Against Rider Surveillance (CARS) announced its existence Feb. 27 with a press release calling MDS “a dangerous technology that makes it easy for local governments to track people’s personal movements through cities.”

The technology, which consists of APIs, is an effort the Los Angeles Department of Transportation began in 2018 with an eye toward emerging mobility options such as self-driving vehicles. But soon, companies such as Bird, Lime and Uber’s JUMP started putting their shared electric scooters in urban areas — leading cities such as Los Angeles to look for new ways to regulate and analyze them.

So LADOT, with participation from several other government entities, used MDS to start collecting data from companies and communicating rules to them: speed limits, parking restrictions, etc.

The idea was to benefit cities by giving them tools to ensure safety and equity while simultaneously benefiting companies by a standard, uniform method of identifying the rules of the places they operate in. In fact, LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds told Government Technology that some scooter companies have suggested MDS to local officials when expanding into new cities.

But Uber, which has loudly resisted new regulations in recent years, sued the city in an attempt to avoid handing over its data. The city suspended Uber’s permits for electric bikes and scooters.

CARS, which also includes groups such as Mi Familia Vota and the LA-based community action group CDTech, is arguing that MDS could violate riders’ privacy.

“Imagine your personal movements being tracked by the government,” said CARS spokesperson Keeley Christensen in the press release. “Every time you visit the doctor, have a date or go to the gym, a government record would be created. Thanks to MDS, this scenario could soon become a reality.”

The statement cited fears that even data that doesn’t include a rider’s name or other personally identifying information can still be matched to them. Other mobility and privacy advocates have raised that concern before — that location, patterns or other information could help reveal whose data is whose — but others have suggested possible workarounds, such as randomly shifting locations by a certain distance or aggregating numbers.

Even so, many have raised the possibility that any data collected could end up in the hands of federal officials who could use it for, among other things, deportation. Or, as CARS outlined in its statement, perhaps governments could use the data to impose fines for taking the wrong route. Or perhaps businesses could identify rivals’ acquisition plans.

The CARS website also calls for more input from citizens, greater transparency over how the data is used and for the public sector to limit how it shares the information it collects.

The code for MDS is open source and available for review on GitHub.

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