User Data, Privacy Concerns, and Transportation Tech

If there are any ideas that the internet believes to be the truth in this modern day in age, I think that the following would at least make the list: the government is likely watching you through the camera in your laptop, and Facebook’s algorithm may know you better than anyone else. While the internet normalizes being surveilled – and George Orwell can be heard continuously rolling over in his grave – the collection, analysis, and sale of information and user data is something to, at the very least, keep in mind.

Target can predict when a shopper is due to give birth based on subtle changes in shopping habits (going from scented to unscented soap, for example); your phone tracks where you are and how often you go to the point that it recognizes your patterns and routines, suggesting certain destinations you visit regularly; and health insurance companies believe they can infer that you will be too expensive to cover simply from looking at your magazine subscriptions, whether you have any relatives living nearby, and how much time you spend watching television. It is both fascinating and startling in equal measure.

When we narrow our focus to transportation and mobility, there is still an entire world of information that is being collected, sold, and turned into, for example, new marketing strategies for companies purchasing that data from brokers. Other times, the actor using that data-turned-actionable intelligence is a government entity. Either way, it’s good know and understand some of what is being collected and how it may be used, even if it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Car insurance companies track and collect data on how often drivers slam on brakes or suddenly accelerate and offer rewards for not doing those things. People have been subjected to police suspicion or even been arrested based on incorrect geolocation data collected from their cell phones.

Despite the potentially grim picture I may have painted, user data isn’t always wielded for evil or surveillance. Recently, popular navigation app Waze added a feature that allows its users to report unplowed roads plaguing drivers during the winter months. The feature was developed through collaboration with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). Users in areas with inclement winter weather are now notified when they are coming upon a roadway that is reportedly in need of a snowplow. In addition to providing users with information and warnings, Waze also partners with transportation agencies across the U.S. and provides these agencies or local governments with this winter transportation information through the Waze for Cities Data program. The point is to make responsible parties aware of the areas that are still in need of a snowplow and assist them in prioritizing and deploying resources.

This sort of data collection is innocent enough and helpful in a person’s everyday life. According to Waze, the data is anonymized and contains no personally identifiable information (PII) when it becomes accessible to government agencies. However, as cars and cities become smarter the risk of an individual user’s data being used for more concerning purposes is likely to increase. This danger is in addition to the privacy risks that come from carrying around and depending upon personal devices such as cell phones.

“[Cars are] data-collecting machines that patrol the streets through various levels of autonomy. That means that our mobility infrastructure is no longer static either, that infrastructure is now a data source and a data interpreter.”

Trevor English, InterestingEngineering.com

Uber went through a phase of tracking users even while not using the app; a number of smart city technologies are capable of capturing and combining  PII and household level data about individuals; and the City of Los Angeles wants to collect real-time data on your individual e-scooter and bikeshare trips – California’s legislature doesn’t exactly agree. As these capabilities are advancing, so is the law, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the race is a close one. So, while our cars and scooters and rideshare apps may not yet be the modern iteration of Big Brother, there’s always tomorrow.