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Commentary: Governments Over-Reaching on Transportation Data

Los Angeles and other California cities "want data that the police would need a warrant to get." Los Angeles has been taken to federal court on this exact issue, but a trial has yet to begin.

This commentary, which first appeared in CalMatters, was co-written by Assemblymembers Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, and Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland. 

A trip to the grocery store, a long bike ride through a park, a stroll through our neighborhoods. These are the precious trips we have all come to look forward to during the recent stay-at-home orders.

These moments – like our pre-pandemic trips to work, school and restaurants – paint an intimate portrait of our daily lives. And this is precisely the information that the government wants to collect from you.

A world where you know where a person begins and ends a journey, the route they took to get there and the time they arrived, can seem intrusive when applied to a child being watched by a parent, but is altogether bone-chilling when applied to Californians being watched by their local governments.

Currently, Los Angeles and a number of other California cities are requiring that rented mobility devices – those e-bikes and e-scooters you see on streets and sidewalks – share real-time location data on all of its users as a condition to receive a permit to operate.

If this sounds excessive, an invasion of privacy, something that should already be illegal, it is. The California Electronic Communications Privacy Act forbids any government entity from compelling location information from these devices without the consent of the rider or a court order.

Los Angeles and other California cities have decided to ignore this and take a disturbing stance that civil rights protections only guard against abuses by law enforcement, not the other dozens of departments in local or state government. To be clear, these cities want data that the police would need a warrant to get. Los Angeles has been taken to federal court on this exact issue, but a trial has yet to begin.

This invasion of privacy disproportionately impacts those who do not have the resources to own their own car, bicycle or scooter and must rely on shared modes of mobility to travel. Many young people in dense cities rely on these mobility options to get to work or school, while older adults may use a ride-share service to get to the airport or for a responsible night out on the town.

This year we introduced Assembly Bill 3116 in an effort to protect consumer privacy and make abundantly clear in state law that local governments are in the wrong to collect this individually identifiable data without a court order or the user’s permission.

Los Angeles, other cities across the state and regional governments strongly opposed the measure, claiming transportation planning would be hampered if even a modest time delay or anonymization of trip data were to be enforced. This opposition from other localities underscored that Los Angeles’ disturbing stance – that our location data is fair game for local government officials as long as they don’t have a badge – is a growing trend.
Unfortunately, AB 3116 was held in the Assembly and will not be the end of these surveillance programs proliferating in our cities. But that does not mean we will stop our fight, or that Californians need to accept these big-brother programs.

The Los Angeles City Council should hear from its residents that the actions of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation are unacceptable. As should the leaders of Long Beach, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Monica and San Diego for their own departments’ transgressions.

Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, a Democrat from Thousand Oaks, represents the 44th Assembly District and chairs the Assembly Select Committee on Cybersecurity. Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, a Democrat from Oakland, represents the 15th Assembly District and is a member of the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee.

CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.