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The fight for passenger privacy

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This article was originally published by Christopher Carey on Cities Today, the leading news platform on urban mobility and innovation, reaching an international audience of city leaders. For the latest updates follow Cities Today on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube, or sign up for Cities Today News.

The actions of some big tech companies have led governments and the media to lead the accusations of big brother intrusion into our daily lives but Uber has put the boot on the other foot to lay into the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s (LADOT) use of data. Over the past two years, the mobility company has fought to stop LADOT from collecting real-time data on its e-scooter and bike-share schemes, arguing that it infringes passengers’ privacy rights. Uber’s aversion to real-time data collection has spawned an ongoing legal saga that has been argued at the city, state, and federal levels with a script worthy of the world’s movie capital.

[Read: Proposition 22: Uber and Lyft’s last ditch attempt to keep their business model alive]

In an LA City Hall hearing in January, a lawyer representing Uber declared: “It is surely no exaggeration to say that what LADOT is proposing here resembles the world of a dystopian novel, like 1984 or Brave New World, where the government tracks its citizens in real-time about where people were, where they are, and where they are going.” While the Orwellian comparison has so far failed to convince the courts, the case has raised important questions about how cities use data and what limits companies are prepared to go to stop them.

The dispute centers on the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), a data standard that facilitates the exchange of anonymized data between transport operators and municipal transport departments. It was first introduced in the autumn of 2018 but its origins can be found in LADOT’s 2016 transport technology strategy Urban Mobility in a Digital Age, which served as a roadmap for the city’s transportation future – encompassing everything from autonomous vehicles to mobility hubs. One section of the strategy, Data as a Service, spelled out how “the rapid exchange of real-time conditions and service information between customers, service providers, government and the supporting infrastructure” could optimize safety and efficiency, and improve the overall transportation experience.