The actions of some large technology companies have caused governments and the media to accuse a big brother of intruding into our daily lives, but Uber has turned his boot upside down on the use of data by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT ) to investigate. For the past two years, the mobility company has tried to prevent LADOT from collecting real-time data on its e-scooter and bike share systems, arguing that it violates passengers' privacy rights. Uber's aversion to real-time data collection has spawned an ongoing legal saga, which was discussed at city, state, and federal levels with a screenplay worthy of the film capital of the world.
In a hearing at LA City Hall in January, a lawyer representing Uber said: "It's surely no exaggeration to say that what LADOT is proposing here resembles the world of a dystopian novel like 1984 or Brave New World, in which the Government tracks its citizens in real time about where people have been, where they are and where they are going. “While the Orwellian comparison has so far failed to convince the courts, the case raised important questions about how cities use data and what limits companies are willing to stop.
The focus of the dispute is the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), a data standard that facilitates the exchange of anonymized data between transport companies and municipal transport departments. It was first introduced in autumn 2018, but its origins lie in the urban mobility mobility technology strategy in a digital age of LADOT for 2016, which served as a road map for the city's future traffic – from autonomous vehicles to mobility centers. A section of the strategy, Data as a Service, outlined how “the rapid exchange of real-time conditions and service information between customers, service providers, authorities and the supporting infrastructure” can optimize security and efficiency and improve the overall transport experience.
Seleta Reynolds, General Manager, Los Angeles Department of Transportation
LADOT Director General Seleta Reynolds has long recognized the need for cities to have more control over the huge amounts of data generated by emerging mobility trends. Before Reynolds started working in LA in 2014, she was Head of the Liveable Streets Department at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, where she witnessed firsthand how hail fighting companies suddenly appeared and changed mobility in the city – not always for the better.
When he arrived in LA, Reynolds was determined to be more proactive and to control both the code and the street.
"We have been working on a number of studies to find out how digital transformation can be carried out, taking into account the evolving roles that private companies play in mobility," says Reynolds. "It seemed like we needed to develop a new model and method to communicate more effectively with companies that operate under public right of way."
In March 2018, Reynolds awarded a $ 1 million contract to develop new standards for mobility operators to an unknown technology consultancy, Ellis & Associates, led by John Ellis – a former global technologist at Ford, whose work is the foundation of the company should form MDS. Originally created under the management of multiple modes of transport for new traffic trends in a rapidly changing ecosystem, it was the sudden explosion of e-scooters on the streets of LA in summer 2018 that was to serve as a catalyst for the introduction of the MDB in 2018 October this year.
To comply or not to comply?
Images of e-scooters exposed on sidewalks and blocking access for pedestrians, cyclists, and people with disabilities became more and more popular in 2018, and companies such as Lime, Spin, and Bird became increasingly aware of their apparent inactivity. More and more residents saw the devices as a threat, and some even took matters into their own hands.
Videos and pictures of e-scooters that were destroyed, set on fire and thrown into rivers flooded social media and even launched a special Instagram page called "Bird Graveyard", where disgruntled Los Angeles residents posted their handicrafts. For Reynolds, the increasingly chaotic situation only reinforced the argument for the introduction of the MDB, which she believed would bring order and accountability to the streets. While the city's micromobility operators were concerned about opening their data to LADOT, they all met the new real-time data exchange requirements – with one notable exception. Reynolds has a defiant and contentious stance on city and state regulation, and is not surprised by Uber's response to the MDB.
"The California Public Utilities Commission (which governs state hail trips) previously had to struggle to get data from Uber," she explains. "They even took them to court to force them to provide data that they had previously agreed to submit." Uber quickly advocated state legislation to support a bill that would prevent cities from collecting detailed information about their jump e-bikes, and received broader support from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who argued that the MDS could leave personal data that is prone to misuse.
"We were only asked about this type of information by two government agencies, one was LADOT – the other was Egyptian intelligence," said Melanie Ensign, Uber's global director of security and data protection, who has since become CEO of Discernible. In addition to its privacy arguments, Uber also began to question LADOT's relationship with the companies it worked with to create the MDB. The potential of the city or others to monetize the data collected cast a shadow over the integrity of the program. Backing up on the allegations, LADOT took the unprecedented move to release a set of privacy principles in March 2019 that the data would never be sold and law enforcement requests would be resisted.
"You have to take into account the main difference between the public and private sectors," says Reynolds. "We don't do this because we try to make a profit and expand the market. We do it because we try to keep society going."
When the lawsuit followed, others began to see the merits of introducing the MDB on their streets. By mid-2019, more than a dozen U.S. cities had adopted the LA data exchange standard as part of their own micromobility programs. With the expansion, Reynolds saw an opportunity to create a network where cities, nonprofits, and businesses could collaborate on implementation globally.
In June 2019, she founded the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF) together with OASIS – a non-profit open source platform – and 14 other cities. After the former Chief Information Officer of the city of Boston, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, was appointed as Executive Director, the foundation invited companies like Bird, Spin and Microsoft (but not Uber or Lyft) as well as non-profit organizations like The Rockefeller Foundation and Metrolab to join a network.
"There has long been a huge gap in cities' ability to keep up with changes in mobility and effectively act as regulators," said Franklin-Hodge. “I was very fascinated by MDS when I first saw it because it represented cities that recognized this gap and said, 'Wait a minute, maybe we don't have to bury our heads in the sand, but instead create our own modern digital ones Tools that we can use to act as regulators or administrators of public space. "
The OMF is funded by contributions from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Knight Foundation and contributions paid by its commercial members and now has over 50 members in the United States – – including New York, Seattle, Portland, Washington DC – and dozens more abroad.
While collecting real-time data is a key tenet of using MDS in Los Angeles, cities can choose à la carte which elements of the program they want to use, with some, including Sacramento, Minneapolis and Oakland, choosing not to collect real-time data .
Commenting on the opposition that Los Angeles encountered, Franklin-Hodge said Uber is now facing a regulatory model that he has successfully avoided for his hail business. “In almost every city in the United States where Uber was founded, they came in without permission, often went to court and sued local jurisdiction, and were very successful at the state level in preventing the ability of local cities to regulate the hail on their streets, ”he says. "They are now seeing an alternative reality they dislike, in which cities have the data from day one that they need to understand the impact and benefits of new services and are empowered to make smart regulatory decisions. "
This reality prevailed in October 2019 when LADOT Uber issued permission to operate its Jump-E scooters and bikes and refused to comply with the MDB. Uber subsequently appealed (and lost) to a later hearing in early February. Two weeks later, an anti-MDS campaign group Communities Against Rider Surveillance (CARS) appeared, which is a collective of “affected citizens, advocates of privacy and civil liberties, and traffic innovators who are committed to making the roads safer and more manageable and at the same time protect driver privacy. ”Together with seven small NGOs, Uber was a founding member.
According to Franklin-Hodge, the coalition is a "transparent artificial grass campaign" from Uber, in which inaccurate information about MDS is given, while ignoring the inheritance of bad data protection practices, multiple violations of driver data and falsification of information to the supervisory authorities becomes. Uber suffered a cyber attack in October 2016, which exposed data from 57 million of its customers, and did not admit that the leak had only occurred in November 2017 – when it was announced that the hackers were ransoming $ 100,000 had paid. A subsequent legal action by the U.S. government resulted in a $ 148 million payout, and Uber was later fined by UK and Dutch regulators. In March 2017, the company was found to have used a software tool called Greyball to actively deceive law enforcement officers in cities where their service violated the law. Geolocation data, credit card information and social media accounts were used to identify people suspected of working for the city, agencies responsible for verifying compliance.
But on the MDS Uber is not without supporters. It has found an ally in the well-known US civil rights group ACLU who has also raised concerns about the potential of MDS in Los Angeles to disclose sensitive data about users. While there is no evidence of this or how likely it is, it has raised more doubts about its use. Studies by MIT and the University of Texas have shown that it is possible to undo the anonymization of data and possibly reveal private information about drivers.
Uber also took advantage of the Wall Street Journal's February disclosure that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security bought access to a commercial database that could be used to monitor the movements of millions of smartphone users to track down illegal migrants. Reynolds acknowledges that there will still be legitimate questions about how government and cities manage data storage, protection, and aggregation, but that there needs to be a balance so that cities can deliver high quality services in an increasingly digital world.
"I don't think this means we shouldn't even collect data," she says. "This does not only apply to the MDB. The government has long been collecting sensitive information about people in order to provide services."
Then the climb came. In mid-March, when LADOT was reviewing the six-month permit extensions for micromobility operators, UI tacitly informed the traffic authority of its intention to meet the MDB requirements. "I was surprised," says Reynolds. “After losing their appeal in February, the next step for them was to appeal to the City Transport Commission. As we prepared, we heard that they were no longer following this hearing and intended to fully comply with all of the six-month extension MDB requirements. "
The appearance of e-scooters contributed to the development of the MDB
But while it seemed to match, Uber added another twist. In late March, she initiated proceedings to bring LADOT to federal court for real-time data exchange requirements that violate federal and state law, including the fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And last month, the ACLU also announced that it has filed a lawsuit against LADOT and the City of Los Angeles for the same data requirements that Uber pushed back for violating the fourth change to the U.S. Constitution and the California Electronic Data Protection Act violate.
Uber claims that it will not meet the real-time data requirement, and says it has only "forced" to reach the six-month extension.
"We have a latency agreement with LA so we can maintain our approval there," Ensign said. “However, we still believe that their federal and state law requirements are illegal. And that's why we filed the lawsuit in March. "
"We have no plans to make similar agreements with other cities unless they want to be included in the lawsuit," she explains.
An anomaly related to Uber's relationship with the MDB, according to Franklin-Hodge, is that it adds "quite a bit of code" to the open source platform on GitHub. "It is a somewhat interesting dynamic that they actively participate in the open source process, regularly participate in our meetings and actually make constructive contributions to what their lobbying arm is trying to demonize."
According to Ensign, Uber is not against MDS as a concept. Standardization in the industry is a good thing.
Jascha Franklin-Hodge, managing director of the Open Mobility Foundation
"The whole point of the lawsuit is to get advice from the federal government on where the management should be. We don't want to fight this fight with every single city in the world. However, we need someone other than Los Angeles lawyers to confirm where the legal line is so that we can apply this standard across the country. "
Look into the future
As cities look for new strategies to manage data standards in mobility, more coalitions have emerged. In December, the Mobility Data Consortium (MDC) was launched by SAE International, a professional association for engineers. At the beginning of May, two best practice guides were presented to help cities manage data on micromobility: one for the management and allocation of data for data exchange; and the other offers a glossary of terms and data metrics.
The group currently has 16 members, 12 from the private sector (including Uber) and four government agencies – Tallahassee, Miami-Dade County, Bellevue and the Denver Regional Council of Governments. Annie Chang, Head of New Mobility at SAE International, says the new consortium will complement the OMF and not compete with it, but rather focus on defining data protection standards rather than APIs and specifications.
She admits that there is a “mix of feelings” about MDB among her members and that the organization plans to develop tools and legal clauses that the authorities can adopt to address some of these concerns.
It is also important for Reynolds that cities have specific results and clarity about why they are collecting the data. "The ultimate goal for us is to make the urban transportation system better, give people more choices and bring order to chaos."
But while cities are struggling to control chaos, the final act in this drama is most likely not in their hands. As Ensign says, "If the federal government tells us that LADOT's requirements are not illegal, we can stop fighting."
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