‘We can’t collect New Yorkers’ data first and justify it later; we have to only track the public when it will actually help, and then with safeguards against abuse and misuse.’

Emil Cohen/NYC Council Flickr

An e-scooter demonstration in Queens last summer.

Navigating New York has never been more challenging. As the MTA cuts back service, and riders fear COVID-19 exposure on their commute, car ridership has surged, and traffic has ground to a halt. But there is hope that expanding bike access, scooters, and other alternatives could be the solution…so long as we can make it past the red tape.

The newest addition to our city’s transit fleet will come in March, when the NYC Department of Transportation will launch an electric scooter sharing program, similar to Citi Bike, in four out of the five boroughs (not so fast Manhattan). But there’s a catch: privacy. Buried in the scooter pilot’s regulations is a clause mandating a tracking program called Mobility Data Specification (MDS). Under MDS, every scooter reports its precise, real-time location to the city, including starting points, routes, and destinations. MDS data is so granular that it can easily be used to identify and track riders. 

Apply that, potentially, to thousands of scooters across the city and it amounts to a sweeping surveillance system. And there’s no warrant, no court supervision, no oversight whatsoever. Just an unenforceable promise from DOT officials that they won’t abuse this new location repository.

But MDS may not stop with two-wheeled commuters. MDS’s creators at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) want to expand the program to all urban transportation. And with the move to congestion pricing here in New York, the same may be on the horizon for us.

Even though transportation officials have an ambitious agenda for their tracking system, they haven’t clearly addressed the civil rights impact of their tool. As a result, LADOT landed itself in a prolonged legal battle with the ACLU, which is suing officials for violating Angelenos’ privacy rights with unconstitutional surveillance.

New York City can’t afford to pedal down this same path. 

MDS poses an immediate threat to our privacy and safety. We are building a real-time map that can be used by the NYPD to monitor protests, or which can be used by ICE to deport our undocumented neighbors. MDS backers claim that our data is “anonymized,” but this isn’t as comforting as it sounds. ICE and other agencies routinely combine supposedly “anonymized’ databases with other information to track New Yorkers. And the sort of trip data collected by MDS is uniquely difficult to protect. Simply showing that our trip begins at our home, or ends at our workplace, could be enough to help ICE connect the dots.

Even worse, this data could provide an invasive tool to hackers and other unauthorized users. With city governments increasingly ill-prepared to handle data breaches and institute safe data-sharing practices, it creates a potent risk for people’s personal location data to be involuntarily revealed.

Ironically, this surveillance undermines one of the chief goals of expanding the use of scooters: promoting transportation equity. The BIPOC communities that have endured decades of unconstitutional NYPD surveillance will be the ones most reluctant to ride a scooter that doubles as a tracking anklet.

Despite all the risks, the litigation, and countless other concerns, we still see transportation officials here and across the country pushing forward with MDS. They have an unquestioning belief that if they can just track us closely enough, if they can just get enough data, that they’ll be able to solve our traffic woes. But this tech solutionism is just a dream, a Silicon Valley sales pitch, with no evidence that this sort of invasive data collection helps. 

We have to turn this philosophy on its head. We can’t collect New Yorkers’ data first and justify it later; we have to only track the public when it will actually help, and then with safeguards against abuse and misuse. At a minimum, we need to make sure that New Yorkers can safely commute to work without ending up in a city database.

Cahn (@FoxCahn) is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy group and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law. 

The NYC Department of Transportation responds: NYCDOT takes the privacy of the public, including users of Citi Bike and our upcoming e-scooter and dockless bike share pilots, extremely seriously. This opinion piece includes a number of gross misrepresentations about the Mobility Data Specification (MDS)—too many to rebut here. Put simply,  MDS is a way for transportation agencies to hold companies that provide shared scooter and bike services accountable and to ensure that those services are operated safely, equitably, and responsibly. The need for MDS arose after a number of these companies, typically backed by venture capital dollars and armies of lobbyists, began operating in cities across the United States with little regard for the rules of the road and the needs of local communities. MDS was designed with privacy in mind—it purposely does not include information about users, nor does it provide the ability to associate trips to individuals. The data is stored securely by DOT according to industry standard practices. And any data request by law enforcement—be it state, local or federal—requires a valid subpoena, court order or search warrant. Doing away with MDS as the author suggests would give micro-mobility companies free hand to operate with little accountability and hobble the ability of NYCDOT and other transportation agencies to protect public safety and the accessibility of our streets.