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Uber joins privacy coalition to curb city data collection

Newly formed CARS says it wants to “set the record straight” about MDS programmes but LADOT called it “a disinformation campaign”.


The Communities Against Rider Surveillance (CARS) group, whose members include Uber, the Business Travel Coalition and citizens’ rights advocacy groups, has formed to fight the Mobility Data Specification (MDS).


The standard for exchanging data between mobility operators and cities was developed by LA Department of Transportation (LADOT) in 2018, to support city planning and management of micromobility. 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.


CARS called the MDS “a dangerous technology that makes it easy for local governments to track people’s personal movements through cities”. It is urging cities to instead “adopt data collection policies that protect rider privacy and safety”.


This would include cities obtaining opt-in consent from riders, holding public consultations before implementing data-sharing programmes, and providing more clarity around how data will be used and stored.


Public-private clash


The launch comes after LADOT won the latest appeal in its dispute with Uber’s Jump over sharing data via the MDS.


Los Angeles 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 MDS. Uber has 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 last month, Uber lost the appeal against that decision. It says it will appeal again. Users will still be able to rent Jump bikes and scooters for now.


“Imagine your personal movements being tracked by the government. Every time you visit the doctor, have a date or go to the gym, a government record would be created. Thanks to MDS, this scenario could soon become a reality,” said Keeley Christensen, a spokesperson for CARS.


The MDS, originally developed by LADOT in 2018, is now used by more than 80 cities and public agencies around the world.


The CARS coalition says it “will work to provide the facts and set the record straight” about MDS programmes but a spokesperson for LADOT called it “a disinformation campaign orchestrated by private companies who want to profit from cities, with no accountability."


“We will stay focused on reducing congestion, improving air quality, protecting public safety and increasing access to our public streets and sidewalks issues Uber has made worse nationwide,” they told SmartCitiesWorld.


Sensitive information


Although the MDS does not collect names and the OMF’s website makes clear that it is “committed to prioritising privacy as a critical component of any mobility management solution,” studies have shown that it can be possible for anonymised mobility data to reveal sensitive information about individuals. A CARS statement also argued that most cities have failed to specify their policies and practices for handling MDS location data or adopt clear privacy safeguards.


“Business travellers are increasingly concerned that MDS programmes will lead to the harmful use of sensitive personal and highly confidential commercial information,” commented Business Travel Coalition chairman, Kevin Mitchell. “These ill-vetted programmes could even lead to leaked or sold merger and acquisition information, and we intend to protect the business travel community against that threat.”


In addition to the Business Travel Coalition and Uber, other CARS members include Mi Familia Vota, a national civic engagement group, and Patient Privacy Rights, an advocate for patients’ rights to control their personal health information.


Uber had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.


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