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Uber files lawsuit against LADOT over dockless data-sharing

Uber claimed it has been left with little choice than to take the action but LADOT defended its data policy and lamented the “unfortunate timing".


Uber has launched a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) over an ongoing data-sharing dispute relating to its Jump bikes and scooters.


As a condition of issuing a licence for dockless personal mobility deployments, LADOT mandates that companies provide real-time data on the start point and endpoint of each trip, and the full ride route within 24 hours, via the Mobility Data Specification. This is to monitor for permit violations.


Uber has previously refused to share the data on privacy grounds, arguing it could reveal personal information about riders. In October, LADOT suspended Jump’s licence for bikes and scooters and Uber recently lost the appeal against that decision. It is now suing.


LADOT told SmartCitiesWorld that around two weeks ago, Uber notified the department that it would comply with dockless permit requirements.


“The lawsuit followed and was received by us this morning,” said Connie Llanos, assistant general manager, external affairs, LADOT, on March 25.


Real-time data


In a Medium post, Ruby Zefo, chief privacy officer, Uber, said the lawsuit was contesting LADOT’s implementation of the Mobility Data Specification, which she claimed is "unlawful" and allows the city to access and collect the location coordinates of Jump riders in real-time, “putting their personal privacy at risk."


The MDS is a standard for exchanging data between mobility operators and cities and was developed by LADOT in 2018 to support city planning and micromobility management. It is now used by more than 80 cities and public agencies around the world and managed by the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF), a city-led initiative formed in June for the use of open-source technology for transportation management.


Zefo said: "Jump already shares, and will continue to share, data about our business to support the safe and equitable operations of cities’ dockless mobility programmes and allow cities to verify that permit requirements are met. However, we remain concerned about LADOT’s demand for data about individual riders, including where they begin their trip, where and when they arrive, which route they take, and any stop they make along the way."


The MDS is a standard for exchanging data between mobility operators and cities.


"This highly personal information, shared in real-time with government agencies, signifies a decisive step towards the continuous, unregulated surveillance of our users. In contrast, many other cities, including some in California, are successfully operating their dockless mobility programmes without these demands," she added.


A key area of contention is the real-time data requirement. At an informational shared mobility hearing in front of the Joint Committee on California Senate Transportation and Judiciary on February 25, Seleta Reynolds, general manager, LADOT, said the data-sharing requirements allow the city to verify data “to avoid manipulation and misinformation that corporations have engaged in previously."

“To be clear, we absolutely do not collect personal information about riders," she commented.

Five seconds after a scooter in the public right of way is locked or unlocked, the dockless company notifies LADOT and sends its location.


“This simple requirement allows the city to spot-check the for-profit companies. If our team unlocks a scooter and the company doesn’t send a notification, then we know that all of their data is potentially suspect,” Reynolds said.


If a private company were providing incomplete, inaccurate or false data, how would you know?”

She added: “To those who support less stringent alternatives, I have a simple question: If a private company were providing incomplete, inaccurate or false data, how would you know?"


Zefo wrote: "Filing this lawsuit is an unfortunate, but necessary, step towards understanding how we can build standards and policies together that facilitate the exchange of mobility data while respecting the guardrails of consumer privacy and constitutional rights.”


LADOT’s Llanos told SmartCitiesWorld: “We cannot comment on active litigation, which we received late last night and after it had been shared publicly by Uber. This is unfortunate timing on the part of Uber, as the city’s resources are consumed by responding to the pandemic. As we have said before, our common-sense data requirements allow the city to permit one of the largest dockless mobility programmes in the country. Currently, all eight companies permitted in LA, including Uber, are following our rules, which protect access and safety on our streets and sidewalks.”




Uber recently backed the Communities Against Rider Surveillance (CARS) group, formed with the Business Travel Coalition and citizens’ advocacy groups to fight the MDS.


In an interview with SmartCitiesWorld about this earlier this month, Melanie Ensign, global head of communication for security, privacy and engineering at Uber, commented on whether Uber’s actions could be viewed as confrontational: “In LA, I actually think that’s an accurate characterisation,” she said. “We already told them back in October that if we didn’t see improvements, they could expect a lawsuit.”


“I hope cities don’t view it as confrontational – LA should."


However, she added: “I don’t think that’s accurate in the way that we’re approaching it with all cities but it really depends on the relationship that we have with various city officials.”


She said Uber had spent several years working to repair relationships that had been “bruised” throughout the company’s history with cities.


“I hope cities don’t view it as confrontational – LA should. The intent is to build something that is productive for cities because we don’t want to have to have the same fight with every single city,” Ensign said.


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