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Santa Monica at Center of Privacy Battle Over Shared Mobility User Data

Bob Kronovetrealty
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Santa Monica Convention and Visitors

By Jorge Casuso

June 13, 2019 -- Santa Monica is one of five California cities at the center of a growing debate over the privacy rights of e-scooter and e-bike users being waged in Sacramento.

Along with Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, the beach city is the target of legislation that would prevent local governments from requiring operators of shared mobility devices to provide individual trip data.

City officials say that the non-aggregated data -- which is necessary to effectively regulate the vehicles' use -- does not contain "consumer identifiers," such as account number, name, email, or payment information.

"In order to safeguard personal privacy, in collecting this de-identified trip data, the City takes a variety of protective measures," Constance Farrell, the City's public information officer said.

These include "implementing processes that prohibit reidentification of individual consumers and that prevent inadvertent release of information."

The City also does not release individual trip data in response to Public Records Act requests, Farrell said.

But electronic privacy watchdogs warn that cities that use individual, rather than aggregate, data are putting the location privacy of the users at risk.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1990, notes that the individual trip data include "where and when trips start and stop and granular details about the specific routes taken" within a city's boundaries.

"This data is extremely sensitive, as it can be used to reidentify riders -- particularly for habitual trips -- and to track movements and patterns over time," Jamie Williams, a staff attorney for the Foundation wrote on the group's website this week.

Since dockless vehicles can be parked outside a rider's home or workplace, it is not difficult to reidentify them if they use the same service every day, Williams said.

Time-stamped geolocation data can "reveal trips to medical specialists, specific places of worship, and particular neighborhoods or bars," Williams wrote.

The data can also reveal personal habits, "such as when people typically leave the house in the morning, go to the gym or run errands, how often they go out on evenings and weekends, and where they like to go."

These privacy concerns are addressed in AB 1112, a bill authored by Assemblymember Laura Friedman that would, among other things, allow the "micro mobility" companies to withhold the individual data.

The legislation, which was approved by the State Assembly on May 22 on a 74 to 1 vote would incorporate regulations for the operators in the state code, instead of leaving them up to individual cities to impose.

Santa Monica, along with Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose oppose the legislation, which critics view as a way for operators to avoid the restrictive local laws.

In a letter to Assemblymember Freedman, Santa Monica Mayor Gleam Davis, along with representatives from the four other cities, said their cities "seek a balance of regulatory and privacy concerns."

Among the ways privacy can be ensured is to "specify that any individual trip data would be required to be deidentified and aggregated prior to any publication."

It also suggests that the bill clarify that "cities can require individual trip data for any trip, any part of which occurs within the city’s jurisdiction, and are not limited to just trips that begin or end in the jurisdiction."

Williams says the "technical safeguards" and "business processes" the cities promise to institute to prohibit reidentification is not enough.

"So long as the cities have the individual trip data, reidentification will be possible -- by city transportation agencies, law enforcement, ICE, or any other third parties that receive data from cities," Williams wrote.

On Tuesday, the Senate Transportation Committee held back the bill, setting a future hearing date.

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