Op-EdOpinion

STEELE/KIMBLE: D.C. Government May Soon Track Movements, and Vulnerable Communities are Again at Risk

Living in Washington, D.C., you’ve no doubt seen dockless scooters and bicycles cruising down our streets. They’ve become affordable and reliable modes of transportation for folks with no Metro stop in walking distance, for those who can’t afford or wish to have a car, for victims of bike theft, and many others.

However, you’re probably not aware that the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will soon require companies that operate these vehicles to share real-time rider location data with the city government. The D.C. bureau of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) has been listening to concerns from our community about this plan, and while it might sound harmless, it poses a serious threat to the privacy and safety of Washingtonians. It’s especially relevant to our neighborhoods that are often targeted with oversurveillance, particularly people of color and undocumented residents.

This new requirement, called Mobility Data Specification (MDS), means that DDOT will receive the exact coordinates of where riders begin their trips, where they stop, and the route they take — all in real time. It doesn’t include names, but research has shown that it’s easy to figure out who someone is based on their location. And while MDS will initially apply to e-bikes, proponents have stated their intention of expanding the requirement to all ridesharing services. That means MDS could reveal a rider’s home, work, relationships, place of worship, and more. For what purpose could District officials possibly need this information?

Unfortunately, DDOT has shown almost no transparency around its implementation of MDS. It has not specified how rider location data will be used or secured from bad actors. Nor has the department held a public hearing or meeting on this new requirement. This is extremely reckless governance, particularly when MDS could threaten the civil liberties of District residents.

For far too long, marginalized neighborhoods have borne the brunt of oversurveillance by law enforcement and underservice from publicly enjoyed amenities. When systems like MDS are implemented, even with the best intentions, they are commonly abused by the authorities, and the most vulnerable among us become the victims.

What will prevent Metro PD from accessing MDS and over-surveilling Black neighborhoods under the guise of a “gun violence task force”? Who will stop federal immigration authorities from getting a hold of MDS data to ramp up arrests and deportations among the District’s undocumented population? MDS would only create more distrust and division between our residents and law enforcement. Even if DDOT employees acted with the soundest moral code, there is no foolproof way to keep this data from falling into the hands of bad actors, as witnessed by the recent parade of municipal data breaches.

Furthermore, MDS proponents claim the data could be used to create equity across the District’s eight wards, but the reality on the ground is much different. Real-time location tracking would create an enormous deterrent that keeps low-income and undocumented riders from seeking out these affordable and convenient modes of transportation. There’s no reason to believe a surveillance tool in ridesharing trips would attract more use in underserved neighborhoods, and understandably so.

Cities should be able to collect information from residents for legitimate planning purposes, but tracking individuals in real time doesn’t pass the test. Instead, limiting MDS requirements to aggregated and delayed trip data would be far more responsible and avoid the many pitfalls outlined above.

Unless DDOT can openly and concretely explain the need for tracking riders in real time, provide a clear plan for using and securing such sensitive location data, and detail safeguards for protecting all District residents, then MDS must not be pursued further. Smart city planning should never come at the expense of our most vulnerable neighbors.

Steele is president and CEO of the SCLC. Kimble is the organization’s D.C. bureau chief. SCLC is a nonprofit, non-sectarian, interfaith, advocacy organization that is committed to nonviolent action to achieve social, economic and political justice.

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