Columnists Opinion

Los Angeles should drop rider surveillance program

There are certain days in life when you need an angel.

It could be to get you through the pain of a full day without eating because you only had enough to feed your children. Maybe it’s to find your way past the grief of losing a loved one to the virus that’s wreaking havoc on our cities.

We also seek out angels in our most dire moments. George Floyd tragically called out to his angel, his momma, as his life was prematurely taken from him and he went to be with her. My angel came after my sister died. It told me that I had a new road to walk in life, toward empowering young people in South Los Angeles with safe alternatives to gang activity.

For many years, my sister Sylvia ran with a local gang, and I was no stranger to that lifestyle either, having been a gang member myself. Living in Compton, especially in the 1980s and 90s, opportunities to escape gang activity were hard to come by.

It took a while, but my sister and I were fortunate enough to put that way of life behind us. When she died, I felt a call from God to start Sylvia Nunn Angel’s, an organization devoted to fostering a peaceful community and expanding opportunities for young people to succeed in life.

In addition to organizing after-school programs, taking care of foster children, and hosting food giveaways, we also look for ways to create economic mobility for young people, helping them stay away from the traps of gang activity.

I’ve learned that to achieve this goal, young people need access to easy and affordable modes of transportation: to get to school, to practice, to the library or to work. Few kids in South L.A. have a parent who can take them where they need to be at all times, and even fewer have their own car, so access to transportation is critical.

Since we recognize the relationship between transportation, safety and economic mobility, I was concerned when I saw that the city of Los Angeles has started tracking the movements of individual vehicles in real time. Using a tool called mobility data specification, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation now requires companies like Uber and Lyft to provide the city with access to rider location data, from each trip’s start to finish.

Mobility data specification is currently being tested on dockless bikes and scooters, but officials have said it will be expanded to all ride-hailing services.

When I hear words like “tracking” and “real time” together with “location data,” alarm bells go off, especially because the Department of Transportation hasn’t specified what level of access the police will have to this data. 

Mobility data specification doesn’t collect rider names, but it can still be used to identify and intercept someone as they move throughout the city. It sounds like a form of surveillance to me, and I worry that it will deter young people from using these convenient and cheap modes of transportation to get to where they need to be.

A group called the Center for Democracy and Technology cautioned that mobility data specification could become “a barrier to entry for low-income and minority riders, who already face disproportionate surveillance from law enforcement and other authorities. Without appropriate safeguards restricting access to the data, its collection could deter underserved riders.”

This seems to be a very real pitfall. If recent events have shown us anything, it’s that we need to equip and empower low-income and minority residents, especially young people in Black and brown communities, with the ability to move to and from safe activities. We shouldn’t place location pins on top of them, making them fear for their safety.

Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation hasn’t been receptive to hearing any of these concerns. The city didn’t hold any public hearings before implementing it, which I would’ve gladly participated in to raise these worries, as would many others.

We want what’s best for our children. We want to give them every chance there is to avoid gang life and stay safe, and one of the many resources they need to make that happen is an abundance of transportation options.

Ten years ago, I might’ve taken a much different approach to offering my opinion on equipping and empowering the youth in our city. Thankfully, God sent angels my way to walk me down a new path.

It’s on this path that I work every day to embrace and protect my neighbors and their children. It’s my hope that city officials will drop mobility data specification, join hands with ours, and walk with us toward a safer future. 

Cynthia Nunn is the founder and executive director of Sylvia Nunn Angel’s in Compton.