Uber Technologies Inc. is starting off the year preparing for a new political fight. As New York City seeks more information about ride-hailing drivers’ activities, it’s shaping up to be Uber’s second major conflict with the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The impending battle, which will play out in the open Thursday at the first public hearing on the issue, points to a broader struggle pitting Uber and Lyft Inc. against local governments hungry for more data about the movement of their citizens. The companies have had similar fights across the U.S., invariably reaching the same conclusion each time: They should share less data than local governments want. This will only increase as the companies continue to evolve from a niche luxury product to a sort of transportation utility.
Uber and de Blasio first squared off in 2015 over bills designed to slow the growth of ride-hailing fleets in New York City. Uber mobilized its most loyal customers in the city and came away with a resounding victory. This time, Uber is challenging rule changes proposed in December that would require all for-hire vehicle dispatchers to provide the address and time of each drop-off. (The companies are already required to disclose such information for each pickup.) Regulators said it was an effort to combat driver fatigue and help enforce caps of 60 hours a week.
Uber described the requirement as an invasion of privacy. In an e-mail to New York customers, the company said the government won’t be able to keep information about passengers’ travel habits from becoming public. It urged them to use Twitter to voice their disapproval. The transportation regulator said it’s not collecting personal details about passengers. While it plans to make some of its data public through records requests and the city’s open data programs, it said it would strip out identifying information about drivers and only specify the neighborhood each trip started and ended in, rather than the specific addresses. Taxis already share all the data the commission is requesting from Uber.
Uber argued that the city has inadvertently shared personal information in the past, by providing ostensibly anonymized data sets that could be manipulated to reveal a specific person’s movements. In 2014, a group of software developers, college students and people posting on websites like Reddit were able to tease out information about how much celebrities tipped cabbies in a handful of cases using data from New York’s Taxi & Limousine Commission, the city’s transportation regulator. “We have an obligation to protect our riders’ data, especially in an age when information collected by government agencies like the TLC can be hacked, shared, misused or otherwise made public,” Alix Anfang, a spokeswoman for Uber, wrote in an e-mail to Bloomberg. Lyft also opposes the rules.
It’s an awkward time for Uber to take on the mantle of privacy champion. The company recently released an update to its application that asks to track users after their rides have ended. The move prompted a letter from Minnesota Senator Al Franken, urging Uber to clarify what it’s up to. An article published in December by the Center for Investigative Reporting detailed allegations from former employees that people in the company searched for trip information of ex-girlfriends and celebrities.
But in the case of New York, some privacy organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology echo Uber’s concerns. Gautam Hans, a fellow at University of Michigan’s law school who studies online privacy, said the regulator is collecting data for one purpose, then planning to use it for something else. “I just want the agencies to be clear about what they are doing and why, rather than leaving the rest of us to guess about it,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Uber offered to give officials data on how long each trip lasted, without any location information. The regulator rejected this idea, in part because it appears to have more in mind than driver fatigue. According to the proposed rules, the additional data will help the city investigate complaints about unsafe driving and make sure drivers aren’t illegally picking people up at the airport. The rules would also require the companies to report when people are using their carpooling services, something with no direct connection to driver fatigue. The Independent Drivers Guild, a drivers’ advocacy organization funded in part by Uber, said officials told drivers it would also use the data to investigate complaints of Uber short-changing them on some trips.
In general, Uber takes a hard line against releasing any information. Over the last several years, Uber has gone to court to avoid revealing how many trips its drivers take to the airport in Charleston, South Carolina; how many drivers it has in Houston and Seattle; and what kind of insurance it uses in Columbus, Ohio. Lyft has been a party to some of these lawsuits as well.
Adie Tomer, a fellow at Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said any argument ride-hailing companies make around data sharing should be seen through the lens of this broader strategy of resisting disclosures of any kind. “That push makes it very hard to know precisely what their complaint is on any new regulation,” he said.
As Uber and Lyft advance their missions to become quasi-public forms of transportation in major cities, that doesn’t necessarily come with a willingness to consider their data public property.
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