Uber Only Wants to Share Data On Their Terms

When Uber says it will share anonymized trip data with government, researchers, and the public they promise user privacy will remain intact; but when NYC's Taxi & Limousine Commission requests anonymized trip data to monitor driver fatigue, Uber cries foul.


Last week, the City of New York’s Taxi & Limousine Commission proposed a rule that would require ride-sharing companies to report ride data, with the stated goal of reducing driver fatigue:

This rule would require FHV bases, including app-based services such as Uber and Lyft, to report pick-up and drop-off times and locations for all trips. This would allow TLC to verify that drivers are limiting the number of hours they spend on the road to avoid fatigued driving.

Nearly every time I ride in an Uber, I talk to the driver about their hours, and it’s not at all uncommon for them to tell me the insane schedules they’re keeping to earn more on the service.

Uber’s response to this proposal was an email campaign to its NYC users with the subject line, “The government wants to know where you’re headed …on every ride.”

It reads:

Today, New York City requires Uber and other companies to hand over a lot of sensitive personal passenger data, including where you’re picked up on every trip. Now, New York City wants more. They’re trying to force companies to tell them where you’re dropped off, as well.

In other words, they want to piece together the full details of every trip you ever take. Several independent privacy experts have said this policy creates “serious privacy risks.” And that it would give the government “and anyone else who accesses this information a comprehensive, 360-degree view into the movements and habits of individual New Yorkers.” Click below to send a clear message that enough is enough…

Yours is the most powerful voice in this debate. We need your help. New York City doesn’t need this data and they’ve shown in the past that they cannot prevent it from becoming public.

Team Uber NYC

The call to action was to tweet, “.@nyctaxi I don’t want my private Uber trip data in a government database. #TLCDontTrackMe”. The TLC account doesn’t appear to have responded to the significant number of Uber users tweeting at them as a result of the email.

The email itself is an unfair and misleading interpretation of the city’s proposal. It’s true that the city’s aggregated taxi data was successfully made public through a Freedom of Information Law request by Chris Whong, and that people were able to de-anonymize certain trips based on then-unforeseen additional data sources like paparazzi photos. But Uber’s campaign misconstrues how government data is collected and used, and implies a level of real-time government tracking of individuals without a shred of evidence that this can or does occur. The level of surveillance suggested by the email would be difficult given that the geographic information that will be collected will be aggregated.

Uber’s own employees, on the other hand, have repeatedly bragged of exactly the type of real-time, fine resolution tracking about which this email warns. An Uber executive boasted of tracking a journalist who was critical of the company with a real-time “God mode” of their system.

Just last month, a former employee filed a lawsuit on this exact topic. As Will Evans wrote for the Center for Investigative Reporting’s magazine, Reveal, “Internal Uber employees helped ex-boyfriends stalk their ex-girlfriends and searched for the trip information of celebrities such as Beyoncé, the company’s former forensic investigator said.”

Evans also quoted the former employee, Ward Spangenberg’s court declaration, signed in October under penalty of perjury:

“Uber’s lack of security regarding its customer data was resulting in Uber employees being able to track high profile politicians, celebrities, and even personal acquaintances of Uber employees, including ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, and ex-spouses.”

Uber’s counter-TLC campaign corresponds with the company’s launch of Movement, a site designed to share aggregate ride information data with government officials, researchers, and the public.

With Movement, Uber gains many of the benefits of data partnerships without actually giving up control of their data. The company will no longer have to prepare as many data exports for one-off partnerships with governments or researchers. And the new data-sharing platform has already garnered the company positive coverage in the New York Times under the headline “Uber Extends an Olive Branch to Local Governments: Its Data.”

“The collected trip data is made anonymous and aggregated, Uber said, which it hopes will assuage user privacy concerns,” Mike Isaac reports for the Times. This is the same promise made by New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, which Uber undermines in its email to users.

By launching their own data-sharing platform, Uber controls exactly how and with whom it shares its data, and can continue using its data as a carrot, instead of following increasingly common regulations from increasingly savvy cities that require data sharing on the government’s terms. The data visualized on Movement may not be as useful as actual data sharing, where researchers can study the effect of specific interventions on policy goals like Vision Zero’s safer streets campaign, or combine the private sector data with public sector government data.

Just last week, researchers at MIT CSAIL produced a heavily publicized study showing that the ridesharing model could theoretically reduce the number of taxis needed on our roads, with plenty of societal benefits. This study was only possible because of NYC’s open taxi data. Before throwing municipal government data under the metaphorical bus, Uber might first consider enhancing its own internal data privacy practices.

There’s more coverage on this story at Streetsblog.