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Uber is recording some riders’ trips, raising privacy worries

The increased surveillance of rides at Uber coincides with a spike in demand from U.S. and Canadian regulators and law enforcement officials for companies to share their customers’ information.

Bloomberg|
Nov 22, 2019, 09.16 AM IST
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An Uber spokesman said that both the video and audio recording programs are experiments, and the company is gathering feedback before deciding whether to expand them to additional markets.
Uber Technologies Inc. is adding video and audio recording for more trips -- a move designed to make the service safer and help settle disputes, but which has triggered privacy concerns about the personal information the ride-hailing giant collects.

Uber began offering some drivers the option to install dashboard cameras in their cars this summer, and next month will launch a pilot program in Brazil and Mexico to let riders and drivers opt to record audio in a car. Both early stage experiments are part of Uber’s push to better protect riders and drivers following reports of sexual assaults, physical assault and robbery.

The increased surveillance of rides at Uber coincides with a spike in demand from U.S. and Canadian regulators and law enforcement officials for companies to share their customers’ information. The number of requests from U.S. state and federal law enforcement agencies increased to 3,825 in 2018, up 30% from the year before, according to Uber’s transparency report released Wednesday.

“None of this is simple or easy, but we’ll continue to invest, test and learn to improve safety on our platform while respecting privacy,” Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi said on Twitter Thursday in response to a media report about the expansion of its videotape program. Descriptions of the recordings were previously reported by the New York Times and Reuters.

An Uber spokesman said the company had not significantly expanded video recording beyond the pilot program started in July with camera and driver analytics company Nauto Inc. Nauto’s website lists seven cities where it’s working with Uber on dashcam recording: Dallas and Houston in Texas, Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee, plus Fort Myers, Naples and Tampa in Florida. The spokesman also said some drivers are engaged in the program in San Antonio, Miami, Orlando, Austin and Jacksonville, Florida.

Riders in those cities can see which drivers have cameras when they schedule a ride in the app, and when the driver picks them up because the car has a sticker indicating a recording is underway.

According to information on the website of dashcam provider Nauto, the audio and video footage is deleted on a regular basis. Drivers and riders can both request to view the footage -- with the faces blurred out and audio muted -- but they don’t own it. Uber only reviews the footage when a driver or rider requests a review. In those instances, Uber can access the audio and unblurred faces.

An Uber spokesman said that both the video and audio recording programs are experiments, and the company is gathering feedback before deciding whether to expand them to additional markets.

In Mexico and Brazil, where the company is planning to start its audio pilot, riders will have the option to record the audio of the trip on their phone during a ride. The file is then stored on the user’s phone, but won’t be accessible because it’s encrypted. If a rider or driver wants Uber to review the tape, they send the recording to Uber, which will be able to decrypt it with a key. Uber announced the program in Sao Paulo earlier his month.

While Uber’s access to the recordings is limited, the possibility for abuse remains a concern for some privacy advocates and Uber users. George Arison, founder of startup Shift Technologies Inc., said he’s worried about the “scary” amount of data Uber could potentially collect. “It’s concerning especially since I take a lot of my work calls from my Uber,” he wrote in a message, adding that he still values the service and probably won’t stop using it given the limited scope of the experiment.

Uber, for its part, recognizes the power it wields as it collects customer data, even without the audio and video recordings. In its last transparency report, the company expressed some concern that the information it’s amassed on trips, trip requests, pickup and drop-off areas, fares, vehicles and drivers could compromise privacy if disseminated.

“There is a risk that information like pickup and dropoff locations may allow government agencies—or anyone else who obtains this information—to identify individual riders by associating it with publicly available records,” the report states.

Arison said he was dismayed at the potential for problems with any recorded data. “Creating more opportunity for privacy violations feels very weird,” he said.

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