(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The great scooter schism was perhaps inevitable. Electric scooters — the latest tech-mobility trend — do more than move people from place to place. They also gather detailed information on where and when people travel. City planners can well use that data to help them plan smarter, safer streets. And they have the leverage to demand it, in return for permission to use city-regulated sidewalk space. Rules and permit systems in many cities now require scooter providers to turn over data on everything from travel routes to flat tires.
But this has sparked a backlash. Uber, Lyft, Bird and the other leaders of Big Scooter have successfully stonewalled many cities on ride-hail data, and they haven’t been eager to turn over scooter data either. Unfortunately, they found allies in the California Legislature, which considered a bill that would have prohibited any “unduly restrictive” city rules on scooter operations. This would have been bad for planning and public safety, without truly protecting privacy.
Privacy is at the core of the argument companies use against sharing their data. In this, they were given an opening when, early on, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation developed a universal scooter-data-collection standard that seemed to run afoul of existing state laws meant to clarify that individual trip data is sensitive, personally identifiable information. Thus, companies best known for not cooperating with cities have come to claim that they need to keep scooter data to themselves in order to safeguard the public’s digital privacy.
It’s true that privacy is a big issue. Within the past few years, the potential for data breaches has grown into one of the greatest risks cities face. (They were not among the fears that kept me awake at night in my seven years as commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, a job I left just five years ago.) By gaining access to travel data, a hacker could readily figure out exactly where any individual travels, and when. This is why mobility data are at the center of a larger conversation in cities, state legislatures and the private sector about people’s right to digital privacy.
Perhaps you’re thinking that Google and Facebook have had your data for a decade, and nothing’s gone wrong there. (What’s a presidential election between friends?) Data breaches are a fixture of the daily news, snaring all sorts of private companies (including ride-hail companies) and crippling major cities. As of this writing, a ransomware attack has left the city of Baltimore without core services for over a month.
And lest you assume location data can be harmlessly “anonymized,” that’s a nebulous term masking art as science. Permanently de-identifying data is exceedingly hard; any computer-science undergrad could re-identify an individual from just a few data points. Some law enforcement agencies already use such data to improperly track down suspects, leading to false arrests.
Privacy concerns are real, but that doesn’t mean companies should be able to prevent responsible access to their data. Without the voluminous data that transportation apps gather, cities are left to plan blindly, relying on their old clickers and clipboards. Better cities need better data — to prevent crashes, minimize traffic congestion and get people where they need to go efficiently. So the way to protect mobility data is not to let private companies keep it to themselves; it’s for cities to raise the bar on digital privacy, championing practices that protect both citizens and the public interest.
Thankfully, cities navigating this ocean of data are developing new tools for both using it and protecting it. They’re building privacy into their data demands — by requesting only what they need, aggregating what they receive, and storing it safely. The National Association of City Transportation Officials, a coalition of 72 cities and 10 transit agencies (which I chair), has just published a set of principles alongside the International Municipal Lawyers Association for protecting mobility data. And SharedStreets, a nonprofit digital commons incubated by NACTO, is designing open-source, privacy-first systems for improving city streets — everything from curb regulations to vehicle speeds to management of scooter data — that protect privacy by design.
As cities work through these street fights, they must also collectively push to codify the digital privacy rights of their citizens (think of the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe, or California’s analog). We need a digital bill of rights, ensuring that cities can access the data they need to keep people safe on the streets and online, and stopping companies from engaging in dangerous data collection to begin with. As we make privacy as great a civic value as safety and equity, the lessons we learn will be equal parts ethics and algorithms.
In the process, it certainly won’t help for any state to limit what data its cities can collect — or to micromanage how cities regulate their streets. Recent amendments to the California legislation seem to have walked the state back from the cliff edge, but cities must remain vigilant, and California must avoid setting a dangerous preemption precedent.
Today we’re debating scooters, but in the years ahead, we’ll be talking about data on autonomous vehicles, flying taxis and other modes of travel that haven’t even been invented yet. By putting safeguards in place now, we’ll have the infrastructure we’ll need to protect our lives, property and privacy.
To contact the author of this story: Janette Sadik-Khan at email@example.com
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Janette Sadik-Khan, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, is a principal for Bloomberg Associates and chair of the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
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