Uber in talks with Los Angeles as scooter location data lawsuit looms

The ride-hailing company doesn't want to share everything with the city's government.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
4 min read

Los Angeles' Department of Transportation is asking for real-time location data from scooter providers.

James Martin / CNET

Los Angeles wants a peek at the location data collected by the Uber scooters in its city. The company, better known for its ride-hailing service, doesn't want to give up the information and may take legal action to keep the data private. 

Uber said Monday that it would file a lawsuit against Los Angeles after months of refusing to give the Department of Transportation access to its scooter location data. In September 2018, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation instituted a requirement for all scooter companies to provide location data on the vehicles. The city said it was for city planning purposes. 

LADOT said Tuesday it hasn't received the lawsuit, noting that it's still in talks with Uber regarding the data policy. On Tuesday, the agency suspended Uber's permit, but the company is still allowed to operate its scooters as the discussions continue.

Uber has delayed filing the lawsuit during this process, but is still ready to sue LADOT once the proceedings are over.

Los Angeles' "Mobility Data Specification" plan represents one way local governments are trying to wrestle with the impact of technology companies. It's caught on in other cities such as Seattle; Austin, Texas; and Louisville, Kentucky because they don't want to be caught flat-footed the same way they did when ride-hailing companies first arrived and caused traffic headaches. But the request for real-time location data on scooters is a step too far, raising serious privacy concerns, Uber argues.

"Independent privacy experts have clearly and repeatedly asserted that a customer's geolocation is personally identifiable information, and -- consistent with a recent legal opinion by the California legislative counsel -- we believe that LADOT's requirements to share sensitive on-trip data compromises our customers' expectations of data privacy and security," an Uber spokesperson said. "Therefore, we had no choice but to pursue a legal challenge, and we sincerely hope to arrive at a solution that allows us to provide reasonable data and work constructively with the City of Los Angeles while protecting the privacy of our riders."

"LADOT has the responsibility to manage the public right-of-way, ensuring safety and access for everyone," LADOT said in a statement. "To be effective, the department requires reasonable information about the tens of thousands of shared vehicles operated by transportation technology companies that use our streets for profit. While all other permitted scooter and bike companies are complying with our rules, Uber has repeatedly refused. L.A.'s requirements have been clear since last November, and Uber agreed to abide by them. By 5 pm tomorrow, we expect Uber to come into compliance or they will face suspension proceedings, which could eventually lead to revocation of their permit."    

LADOT's general manager Seleta Reynolds created the plan and said that city governments could use the data to understand technology's impact on transit. 

But location data is sensitive information, and while MDS doesn't collect personal information like name, age, gender and address of the rider, privacy researchers have found time and time again that it's relatively simple to figure out who a person is based on where they've been. 

If you take the same trip every day for your work commute, for example, it'd only take a short amount of time to figure out where you live and where you work based on that data, even without any names.

Uber said that LADOT's plan violates California's Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a law passed in 2015 designed to prevent law enforcement agencies from accessing people's data without a warrant. 

In August, California's Legislative Counsel reviewed MDS and determined that the location data requests could be violating the law, according to City Lab

Uber's battle with LADOT has been going on for months, as the single holdout for location data in the city. In March, LADOT started limiting permits for companies that didn't comply with the location data requests. 

Companies like Lime, Spin and Lyft are giving LADOT that data, but Uber argued that LADOT is harming people's privacy with its requests. While Uber still had a provisional permit that provided limited data to LADOT, the city decided Friday that the company would need to share its real-time data if it wanted to continue operating in Los Angeles.

Uber may sue for the right to keep its scooters in the city without giving the government specific location data on its riders. The lawsuit would be accompanied by a request for a temporary restraining order so Uber's scooters can stay on Los Angeles' streets until the case is decided in court. 

The suit would raise concerns with how LADOT is handling people's location data, arguing that the city agency didn't take necessary measures to protect that information. Uber's lawyers also plan to argue that LADOT doesn't clearly explain how it'll use that data, who it'll share information with, or how long it'll retain that data. 

"Given that we seem to have exhausted all other avenues to find a compromise solution, tomorrow we will file a lawsuit and seek a temporary restraining order in the Los Angeles Superior Court, so that a judge will hear these concerns and prevent the Los Angeles Department of Transportation from suspending our permit to operate," Uber's director of public affairs Colin Tooze said in a letter to LADOT on Monday.

LADOT's requests for location data have also faced criticism from privacy advocates like the Center for Democracy and Technology, as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation
Originally published Oct. 28. 
Correction, Oct. 30, 8:42 a.m. PT: This story initially misstated the status of Uber's lawsuit. It has not yet been filed, pending talks between Uber and LADOT.