Rise of the Surveillance Scooters?

Imagine being falsely accused of a crime, and even though you know you did nothing wrong, you're forced to wear a tracking device that monitors every time you leave the house: where you go, when, and for how long. Even though you're completely innocent, suddenly every errand and day trip is recorded, indefinitely, to be scrutinized, analyzed, and maybe even used against you.  Go to the doctor? They know. Go to AA? They know. Go anyplace where you prize your anonymity, and the government will still know.

Under Los Angeles's new Mobility Data Specification, this could become the reality of millions of Angelenos in the coming months. No, I'm not actually talking about accused criminals — these Californians are charged with any no crime — rather, Los Angeles will deploy a massive surveillance dragnet targeting the less than menacing threat posed by…bikes and scooters. That's right, a city-wide, real-time tracking network, a veritable Orwellian surveillance state, targeting the same sort of scooters popular with middle schoolers.

Bikeshares and e-scooters have proliferated throughout the country, the bicycle or scooter equivalent of rideshares like Uber or Lyft. Users use an app to find the bikes and scooters throughout the city, renting them for short periods, and then dropping them off wherever it is most convenient. Whatever you think of these bikes and scooters, most of us don't think they're the sort of national security threat that requires us to tear-up the Fourth Amendment and destroy the right to privacy. Sadly, Los Angeles Disagrees.

In a perplexing technical document posted by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to the open-source software development site GitHub, the city laid-out it's vision for an unprecedented tracking system.  Buried between technical jargon like "All MDS compatible provider APIs must expose a public GBFS feed…" is a terrifying vision of the future. Under these guidelines, every scooter and bike will need to report the exact GPS coordinates of each device with military precision every 5 seconds.  Even worse, the devices will have to report this data in real time.

As of now, we don't know who will be able to access the data, if it will be shared with law enforcement, or even if it will be shared with ICE. The Los Angeles proposal takes the minimal step of labeling this data as "confidential," but that raises more questions that in answers. Los Angeles has yet to spell out the rules for how this massive trove of data will be stored and safeguarded.  In fact, the city's Strategic Implementation Plan for Urban Mobility for A Digital Age, the techno-futurist planning document that spells out Lost Angeles's vision for the future with phrases like "code is the new concrete", never once mentions data security or privacy.

Some of the most disturbing implications for Los Angeles's plans are for law enforcement and ICE. At a time when progressive localities are pledging to stop racial profiling and become sanctuary cities, this surveillance campaign endangers both promises. Absent protections against law enforcement access, police will quickly start using this data as a warrantless tracking tool in cases where they lack the evidence to obtain a court order. It will become an end-run against one of the most fundamental safeguards of our criminal justice system. At the same time, Los Angeles will unwittingly create a massive repository to help ICE target undocumented families.

Under a federal law known as 8 U.S.C. § 1373, the U.S. Department of Justice can punish cities and states that block their employees and law enforcement officers from providing information to ICE for immigration enforcement. Many localities have gotten around this law by enacting local statutes that restrict what information officers and employees can acquire on residents. The logic is that if you don't have the information in the first place, you can't be forced to share it. By collecting an unprecedented database of where Angelenos live, work, shop, and socialize, the Mobility Data Specification may inadvertently create a treasure trove of data for ICE.

This shouldn't be a controversial issue; it shouldn't even be a partisan one. As both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Sotomayor have written, GPS data reveals a wealth of intimate information about "familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations." Data that intimate, that revealing should only be collected in individual cases, subject to a warrant, not for an entire city. If we don't stop this practice now, it will only grow. With the proliferation of smart devices and self-driving cars, the possibilities for municipal tracking are endless.  If Los Angeles isn't willing to stop this surveillance entirely, we must, at a minimum, give the city a yellow light and proceed with caution.

Albert Fox Cahn (@cahnlawny) is the Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a civil rights and police accountability organization. 

(Image: Cam.wu, CC-BY-SA)