Uber to file federal suit against LA over users’ real-time location data

Uber is poised to file a federal lawsuit over Los Angeles’s demands for what the company (as well as privacy advocates and, presumably, state law) consider to be the city’s privacy-invading demands for real-time location of its users.

Uber provided an embargoed draft of the lawsuit, which a spokesperson said the company will file later this week.

Uber had already threatened to sue the city in October 2019 after the LA Department of Transportation (LADOT) instituted data demands on ride-hailing, scooter/bike-sharing companies. Uber wound up delaying that as it tried to hash things out with the city. LADOT suspended Uber’s permit, but it still allowed Uber to operate its scooters during the discussions.

Uber had presented a compromise: we’ll give you location data, but only 24 hours after trips start and stop, it proposed. That will give LADOT data to use for traffic planning, but it won’t affect user privacy, Uber said. As well, it would, at least potentially, give the company at least a small window of time in which to challenge a specific LADOT request, which is impossible to do when the city demands data in real-time.

According to its federal lawsuit, that wasn’t good enough for LADOT. Uber’s counsel said in the suit that they suspect that the proposal merely galled LADOT. At any rate, on 25 October 2019, LADOT suspended Uber-owned JUMP’s permit and ordered its bikes and scooters off the streets lest they be swept up by the city’s trash collectors.

What’s so special about real-time data, unless – this is Uber’s speculation – perhaps for surveillance purposes?

This isn’t an answer – LADOT hasn’t been able to give one – but in general, LA wants the data for a new data standard called the Mobility Data Specification (MDS).

MDS is based on a standard set of application programming interfaces (APIs) through which mobility companies are required to provide real-time information about how many of their vehicles are in use at any given time, where they are at all times, their physical condition, anonymized trip start and stop times, destinations, and routes, among other data. Besides LA, other cities now using MDS to collect data to manage their own dockless vehicles include Seattle; Austin and San Jose in Texas; Santa Monica, CA; Providence, RI; and Louisville, KY.

LA, like other cities, is trying to pull data from newly chaotic traffic situations in which Uber and Lyft drivers are whizzing around, picking up, dropping off or waiting for fares, while city buses, bicyclists and scooter riders – some using rent-by-the-hour bikes and scooters – jostle for space.

The request for real-time location data is in a policy the city instituted in September 2018 for dockless scooters. While other companies in the industry – including Lime, Lyft, Bird and Spin – have complied, Uber has refused, saying that demanding real-time location data is taking it too far.

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