Whether it’s the 405 Freeway from the San Fernando Valley past LAX continuing down to Long Beach, the 5 Freeway through Burbank and into the heart of Los Angeles, or any other traffic corridor connecting the Valley to the surrounding centers of commerce, normally you’re guaranteed to face some of the worst traffic congestion in the country. It’s a reality Californians have learned to live with because transportation – whether it’s a morning commute or a delivery route – drives the economy and our lives in immeasurable ways.
However, as businesses have shuttered their doors and stay-at-home orders remain in effect to curb the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, most travel within the state is at a standstill. Morning commutes are temporarily a forgotten practice, offices belonging to the largest employers in the state have locked their doors, and businesses are adjusting to new challenges created by teleworking. In short, non-essential travel between the Valley, the rest of Los Angeles, and other surrounding areas is at its lowest level in recent memory.
Yet in the midst of all this, when public forums are closed and Californians cannot freely move through the state, the city of Los Angeles is quietly implementing a surveillance technology that could soon impact the daily operations of countless businesses with employees who regularly travel to or through the city.
Under a new program called Mobility Data Specification or MDS, mobility companies must provide the Los Angeles Department of Transportation with access to real-time rider location data in order to receive operating permits. This includes sharing the precise GPS coordinates of where riders begin trips, where they end, and the routes taken. For now, the technology is being used to track dockless bikes and scooters, but LADOT officials have expressed their intention to expand MDS to all ride-hailing and commercial delivery services.
While MDS doesn’t collect rider names, research has vividly shown that it’s easy to discover a rider’s identity based on their location. Unfortunately, LADOT has failed to disclose what, if any, safeguards will keep this sensitive data from being misused or compromised. Such an intrusion of privacy is not only unnecessary — and perhaps a violation of state privacy laws — it could also keep riders who value their personal information from seeking out these convenient modes of transportation.
Consider the consequences for executives attending routine meetings in Los Angeles. By tracking and recording their movements in a way that’s easy to identify them, LADOT could have access to highly confidential and even proprietary information, ranging from sales pitches and job interviews to mergers and acquisitions. Alarmingly, LADOT’s general manager has acknowledged that “some form of the data will be shared with other city agencies,” as well as private vendors. What’s to stop someone with access to MDS from leaking or selling the data for personal gain? These substantial vulnerabilities would only deter companies from seeking to conduct business in Los Angeles and its surrounding areas.
As history has shown, with each new incursion into our privacy rights, it becomes easier for authorities to sidestep public debate the next time such an intrusion is deemed necessary. Unsurprisingly, LADOT has failed to explain why or how it would use this surveillance apparatus to meet basic transportation needs.
Throughout my career in the business travel industry, I’ve witnessed well-intended, repeated attempts by government agencies to track people’s movements and I understand the risks they pose. In 2004, I testified before Congress to oppose the Bush Administration’s Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II, which would’ve authorized the Department of Homeland Security to create color-coded “risk profiles” of all air travelers. The program was properly terminated several months later.
Fortunately, we have the opportunity to stop MDS before any real damage can be done and demand a responsible alternative to tracking individuals in real time. Permitting mobility companies to share aggregated trip data, for example, would alleviate many of the privacy concerns outlined above and still provide LADOT with the information it presumably needs to complete public transportation projects.
Californians of all stripes, from hourly workers to corporate executives, need responsive city governments focused on creating smart, affordable transportation solutions that maximize personal privacy protections and safety. That is simply not possible through real-time tracking of individuals. It’s time for L.A.’s elected officials to kick MDS to the curb.