The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit Monday against the city of Los Angeles and its transportation department, alleging that the collection of GPS data from electric rental scooters violates riders’ rights.
Although the tracking tool used by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation does not record the identity of the rider directly, the precision with which it captures the user’s location — often to within a few feet — likely allows scooter renters to be identified, according to the federal lawsuit.
LADOT said that it does not comment on pending litigation and has not yet seen the complaint but noted in a statement that it “requires reasonable information about shared vehicles operated by for-profit transportation technology companies and remains committed to ensuring the safety and accessibility of our streets.”
The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which brought the suit on behalf of two local users of the scooter rental companies Lime, Bird and Lyft, say 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.”
The plaintiffs allege that the collection of 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 Foundation of Southern California. “There are better ways to keep rideshare companies in check than to violate the constitutional rights of ordinary Angelenos who ride their vehicles.”
Three years ago, communities across California saw 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, LADOT adopted the Mobility Data Specification software tool, which uses GPS data to automatically track the precise movement of every scooter rider. In order to get permits to operate in the city, 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 such 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, according to the ACLU.
After it’s collected, that type of detailed information can ultimately be lost, shared, stolen or subpoenaed, the ACLU alleges. If in the wrong hands, it can also result in arrest, domestic abuse or stalking, the plaintiffs maintain.
In November, the 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, according to the ACLU.
“Route data can reveal detailed, sensitive and private information about riders,” said Hannah Zhao, staff attorney for the digital rights group EFF. “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 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 plaintiffs’ co-counsel Timothy J. Toohey. “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.”