Community organizations can be one of the strongest vehicles for positive change in a city overwhelmed by hardship, whether that a pandemic, an economic crisis, or racism and injustice. That’s because they serve on the ground, closest to the people who are impacted most by difficult circumstances. I know this firsthand because I lead an organization that supports families who have lost loved ones to gang violence in South Los Angeles.
Since 2008, the year my two eldest sons were killed, Loving Hands Community Care has been my path for turning grief into action by providing others with the resources they need to both move on and stay safe.
I’ve lived in Watts all my life, I raised my six children here, and I want to see this community flourish. My work with Loving Hands is not only meant to honor the memory of my two sons, Branden and Kejuan, it also serves to support and uplift my vulnerable neighbors. There are many other organizations like mine focused on other issues, and we’re all invested in seeing our neighborhoods thrive, which is why we try to stay informed and involved in public policy matters that could directly impact our everyday lives.
Recently, I learned about a new program created by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) that makes me worry for the privacy and safety of our community, including survivors who’ve dealt with the horrors of gang violence. It’s called Mobility Data Specification (MDS), and it’s a tool that allows the local government to track people’s personal movements. Using MDS, LADOT requires mobility companies like Uber and Lyft to share access to riders’ location data in real time, including the coordinates of their trips from start to finish. MDS is currently being tested on dockless bikes and scooters, but city officials have said they’ll expand it to all ride-hailing services.
Although MDS doesn’t collect rider names, it can still be used to identify someone based on their location, like their home, business, or place of worship. Whether it’s a city employee, a private company working for the city, or even a hacker, allowing strangers to access this sensitive information is deeply concerning. I think about families I know who’ve sought justice for their lost children, and it would be impossible for them to feel safe knowing their location data could be misused or compromised. And it’s not just applicable to families affected by gang violence, but all forms of violence. What’s to stop a city employee with access to MDS data from misusing it to track down and intercept an estranged spouse?
Perhaps more troubling, we cannot predict what would happen if other government agencies gained access to this new system. LADOT officials have said they’ll share some level of MDS data with law enforcement, for example, but haven’t committed to clear policies in writing. I hope the authorities would use this data responsibly. But the threat of over surveillance could deter members of the community from accessing these new modes of transportation, particularly at a time dominated by issues of race and policing. And what happens when young people can’t easily get to and from work or after school activities? They become more susceptible to gang activity. It sounds like a needless risk to me.
Unfortunately, LADOT never had a public hearing or meeting before they implemented MDS. If they had requested to hear from members of the community, we could have raised these concerns early on and LADOT could have made more concrete assurances. Community organizations like mine do everything they can to create a safe environment for our children to grow up and live in, and we expect the same from our city officials. The fact that LADOT did not seek input from those who live in the communities this technology could impact most unevenly is very disappointing.
With all that our city has been through in recent months, it would be wrong to continue implementing this surveillance tool with no clear purpose and no input from the many people and organizations working to get our neighborhoods back on track. I urge city officials to put a stop to it and consider the privacy and safety of everyone in our community, especially those impacted by gang violence.
Wooten is the founder of Loving Hands Community Care, Inc. and a Los Angeles mother.
DISCLAIMER: The beliefs and viewpoints expressed in opinion pieces, letters to the editor, by columnists and/or contributing writers are not necessarily those of OurWeekly.