NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission Proposal Raises Privacy Concerns for Apps

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On Monday, the Future of Privacy Forum joined with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee/Defending Dissent Foundation, Center for Democracy & Technology, The Constitution Project, and Electronic Frontier Foundation to write the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) about its proposed rules regarding For-Hire Vehicle dispatch apps.

We were especially concerned with the requirement that apps be automatically capable of “collecting and transmitting” a wide array of data including the requested pick-up time, date, and location, which could be collected even in the event that the passenger later cancelled the trip. The proposed rules provide no guidance with regard to when and how such transmission would occur, suggesting this data could be requested at the sole discretion of TLC.

This sort of broad data collection by a government agency presents important privacy issues. In particular, it raises key Fourth Amendment concerns, as well as permits wide swaths of sensitive data to potentially be released publicly through state Freedom of Information laws. Several news reports have previously demonstrated how even allegedly anonymized taxicab data can be “reverse engineered” to reveal passenger names and trip pick up and drop location information.

Everyone understands the TLC’s need to regulate FHVs and that mobile apps are increasingly the mechanisms that govern these services. FPF in particular has been a strong proponent of smart city initiatives, and using trip data to optimize traffic flows, improve the environment, and advance safety.

Nonetheless, we urge the TLC to seriously consider the privacy challenges posed by its proposal. Our letter encourages the Commission to engage in a more in-depth consultative process with privacy experts, organizations and the public in order to determine how to achieve TLC’s goals to guide FHV apps without unnecessarily placing passengers’ privacy at risk. The full letter is available to read here.