Travelers should be increasingly concerned about surveillance technology

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Kevin Mitchell
Kevin Mitchell

Security lines are nonexistent. Terminals are nearly empty. The barren curbside pickup area is what every business traveler and tourist dreams about. But the reality is much closer to a nightmare. For those whose work still necessitates air travel during the Covid-19 outbreak, their experiences at our nation's airports are not the stress-free jaunt described above but an obligatory risk.

Uncertainty looms for the travel community in the face of this crisis, but leaders across all industries are working to sustain our businesses and the broader economy, prioritizing the safety of all travelers. While we don't know when a sense of normalcy will return, we can all applaud our industry's leadership in supporting our country's fight against the virus. 

In the midst of the pandemic, the Business Travel Coalition has also been closely monitoring a lesser-known issue. It's certainly secondary to the well-being of our members and other industry participants but is nonetheless important. It involves the use of government surveillance technology in cities nationwide, and unfortunately, its implementation has not been curbed by the pandemic.  It's being developed without most travelers' knowledge and input, and all travel advisors should be aware of the risks it poses to privacy and safety.

It's called Mobility Data Specification (MDS). Created by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), MDS is a new standard of data collection that requires mobility companies like Uber and Lyft to provide the city government with access to real-time rider location information, including the start point, end point and route of each trip. It was rolled out as a pilot program for dockless bikes and scooters, but city officials have publicly expressed their intent to expand its use to all ride-hailing services. Already, more than 20 cities have followed the LADOT's lead and started developing MDS systems.

Government agencies claim that MDS data is anonymous because it doesn't include rider names, but studies have shown that it's easy to identify someone based on location. This is an alarming invasion of privacy and could present a bevy of harmful repercussions. Anyone with access to MDS data, whether granted by a local transportation official or accessed through a security breach, could potentially use it for nefarious purposes. For example, the data could reveal when and where partners go on vacation or track a business traveler attending sensitive meetings.

To avoid needless risks, mobility companies have offered to provide Los Angeles and other cities with aggregated trip data that is effective for transportation planning but completely private. However, the LADOT and other MDS proponents simply won't accept it. Despite failing to offer a single scenario in which real-time, individual trip data is necessary to achieve their goals, many cities have begun implementing MDS with little to no public awareness. 

Imagine flying to Los Angeles for the last of several confidential meetings to discuss the acquisition of another company. You hail an Uber at the airport, as you have done repeatedly over the last several months. Given your ride history, an LADOT employee can access enough trip data to identify you, and they're familiar with you and your industry. Their personal beliefs strongly clash with yours, and in this tribal era of politics, they decide to leak the nature of your visits to the press. Would this scenario be good for your business? It might seem far-fetched, but truth is always stranger than fiction. 

It's not just business travelers who would be affected, either. Leisure travelers would also fall under MDS's gaze. When Lyft celebrated its billionth ride, it noted that more than 500,000 of those customers were taken to Disneyland. That's just one of countless destinations where tourism thrives, and visitors could now find their personal movements being tracked. MDS could create a nightmare for travel advisors, whose clients rely on their local knowledge and insights and expect they will take these concerns into consideration.

Government officials should be working to protect our safety, especially during a national crisis like the one we're suffering through now. The same can be said for our privacy.  Los Angeles and other cities are putting every citizen -- business and leisure travelers among them -- in harm's way with real-time location tracking through MDS, and for no concrete purpose.  We must loudly voice our concerns to every city that is implementing this technology before any real damage can be done.

Contact your mayor and city council member today, and urge them to reject this harmful technology.

Kevin Mitchell is the founder of the Business Travel Coalition. 

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