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Sorry folks, the scooter craze could be a data-privacy nightmare

Sorry folks, the scooter craze could be a data-privacy nightmare
[Photo: Flickr user Luis Tamayo]

This story has been updated. 

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It’s 2018 and the latest technology industry craze is a fad that gripped middle schoolers in the year 2000: scooters.

VCs near and far are throwing their expendable investment dollars at companies like Spin, Bird, and Lime, which plop scooters onto busy streets in the hopes that pedestrians will use them to get to their destinations slightly faster. (Spoiler: They do.) All of these companies have attracted high-profile venture backers–including Alphabet, Uber, and Andreessen Horowitz–and at least two of the companies are said to be worth over a billion dollars.

As you may have guessed, it’s not just about the scooters. The real thing that makes the Silicon Valley elite weak at the knees is data–especially when it’s in aggregate and vacuumed up with abandon. According to the ACLU, this is exactly what these scooter startups are doing.

A new blog post from the organization’s Northern California branch analyzes all of the data-collection practices of Spin, Bird, and Lime. To put it mildly, these companies’ policies all seem a bit reckless. For example, all three startups have persistent user tracking, meaning they are following users’ every move from the time they use the scooter until the end of the session. As the ACLU writes, this means it will know if you’re going to a “political protest, or to a religious service, or to see a medical specialist.” And, of course, these companies are keeping this data for an undisclosed amount of time while reserving the right to share it with third parties.

Perhaps more egregious are the companies’ policies on government intrusion. Instead of requiring a warrant, Spin, Bird, and Lime all say that they may hand over personal user information to the authorities on a “good faith belief” that they must do so. In short, if the FBI asks them for data and doesn’t present official documentation from a judge, they may hand it over. The ACLU writes that by taking this mealymouthed approach, “scooter companies are increasing the risk that their growing database of rider photos will end up in the hands of government entities looking to bolster surveillance capabilities.”

With privacy scandals in the news almost daily, digital rights advocates have been calling on tech companies to more clearly explain their data policies and terms of service. With the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where millions of Facebook users’ personal data was unknowingly collected by a third party, the onus was placed on the platform to be less opaque. The ACLU writes that all three scooter companies should be more upfront with their privacy policies, as a way to prove transparency and build user trust.

For years now, technology companies have built entire business models around questionable and flagrant data collection, but consumers and regulators may finally be at a breaking point.

I reached out to all three scooter companies for comment and to see if they have plans to address any of these issues. I’ll update this post when I hear back. (Update: see below.)

For the time being, all we can do is become more knowledgeable about what these platforms are doing—and what they can do. The ACLU blog post is a good start. You can read it here.

Update: Spin has provided Fast Company with this statement:

Spin’s mission is to help people move around cities and campuses in a fast and environmentally-friendly way. We are constantly learning from our riders through surveys, interviews and app usage, and these insights help us improve our products and operations. As an example, we study popular pick-up and drop-off spots to decide where to drop off scooters every morning; we can also track the routes to inform users if they are riding in unpermitted or unsafe areas. However, we always put our riders first and do not sell user data to third parties.

Another update: Lime’s communication manager Mary Caroline Pruitt provided us with this statement:

Lime takes our riders’ data and privacy very seriously. GPS data is always anonymized and aggregated before sharing with cities. Additionally, we do not sell rider data to third-party recipients, and a subpoena or other lawful process is required to access rider data in compliance with legal obligations. To find more information, please reference our Privacy Policy.

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