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Lawsuit Challenging L.A.’s Collection of Scooter Data Dismissed

A federal district court in southern California has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s collection of real-time trip data from shared mobility providers.

a scooter rider passes in front of a public transit bus
Shutterstock/Daria Stock
The Los Angeles Department of Transportation can continue to collect trip and other data related to scooters, bikes and other forms of shared transportation after a federal district court in southern California dismissed the case challenging its collection of mobility data.

The case was filed in June 2020 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on behalf of plaintiffs Justin Sanchez and Eric Alejo, claiming the LADOT ought not collect detailed trip data for shared micro-mobility devices like bikes and scooters. The dismissal was filed by U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee on Feb. 23, 2021.

"This is an issue that may be more appropriately addressed as a matter of public policy, which is not for this court to opine," reads the dismissal.

The decision allows LADOT to continue collecting trip data, which includes real-time locations and routes, facilitated by a software tool known as Mobility Data Specification (MDS). The plaintiffs claimed the trip data could possibly lead to the identification of the users of the scooters and other devices, and therefore served as a privacy violation.

“As you can imagine, we’re incredibly disappointed in the ruling,” Hannah Zhao, a staff attorney for the EFF, told Government Technology. “We are exploring our options, including the possibility of appealing the decision.” 

Officials with LADOT say the ruling signals its micro-mobility programs can continue to proceed. 

“We appreciate the court's decision on this case. As we have continuously stated, cities need data in order to effectively manage the public right of way,” said Colin Sweeney, a spokesman for LADOT, in an emailed statement. “The limited data we gather from private, for-profit companies allows us to enforce regulations that protect communities and ensure equitable access to all modes of transportation.” 

LADOT contends the trip data is needed to better understand how mobility devices are being used, the infrastructure needed to support them, ensure the equitable distribution of the devices and other transportation policy goals.

The lawsuit argued that without a significant amount of effort, the individual identities of scooter riders could be discerned. The court, however, challenged this assumption, saying MDS data is anonymous. 

“It is linked only to the scooter, which is shared and by its nature used by a person only for the duration of a single ride,” reads the judge’s ruling. “Each ride is disassociated from other rides the user may have purchased.”

The ruling goes on to say MDS does not qualify as the sort of search outlined by the Fourth Amendment. 

“But even if it were a search, it would be an administrative search, not for law enforcement purposes,” the court concludes. 

The ruling by the U.S. District Court sends a message to cities that they may continue using MDS – in use by some 90 jurisdictions – to establish transportation planning and policy. 

“The bottom line is this,” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, executive director of the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF). “City transportation departments can and do protect individual privacy while using MDS to manage public streets for public good."

“We’re in the unique position of bringing together folks from both cities and mobility operators to bridge the digital divide and work toward common goals, and we’re thrilled to continue this work,” he added. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.