Uber transparency report raises Big Brother concerns in future Robotaxi services

As we move towards fully autonomous cars, many entrepreneurial types are chomping at the bit anxiously hoping to offer robotaxi services.  The plans are wrapped in this “car sharing” ideology that we won’t have to own cars, that instead we’ll pay a monthly fee for access to cars.  That could be a good thing in terms of reducing resource consumption to operate the transportation system.  However, there’s a big risk of Big Brother being able to know when and where we travel in a robotaxi.

Lest you think I’m making up hyped fears, consider a Transparency Report just released by Uber showing millions upon millions of government requests for data about both riders and drivers of Uber’s ride-sharing service.  In total various U.S. government agencies have asked for data on many millions of Uber rides.

There you have it – even with version 0.1 of the Robotaxi future, the Government wants to know when and where we are using transportation services.  When we get to that future, and proper Robotaxi services are fully operational, if the government is routinely receiving data on the riders using the system, what will happen to our right of privacy?

Robotaxi services

I feel the need to explain this Robotaxi future I’m talking of, so that this concern will make sense.

All the car companies, as well as companies like Uber and Lyft, are working towards offering Transportation-As-A-Service.  That means you’d have a smart phone app with which you’ll request a car.  The service will send an autonomously driven  car to your location, and you’ll probably be able to specify attributes like size (number of seats) or even special amenities.  This of course requires that government regulators approve fully autonomous unoccupied vehicles on the road, which is several years into our future.  Once the car arrives, you hop in, and the car drives you to your destination.  You aren’t required to do any driving, because the car will take care of it for you.   That leaves you free to do other things …

That vision is similar to how Uber or Lyft operate today except that those companies today must operate with human drivers.  As fully autonomous cars become available, it’s obvious that Uber/Lyft/etc will ditch those pesky humans and start offering Robotaxi services.

What’s being requested?

Before we go overboard with fear of Big Brother snooping on Uber rides, it’s useful to actually read the Transparency Report to see what data is being collected.

As you’ll see below, the vast majority of information is for reasonable regulatory purposes.  Governments need to know usage patterns and how effective this sort of service is at reducing traffic congestion, or whether it worsens congestion.  What’s troubling though is that in the vast majority of requests Uber feels the request is too broad presenting a privacy invasion risk.

Uber, at least, is trying to keep government requests to the needed scope of data.  But it’s clear the governments want more than Uber is comfortable with supplying, and that Uber has zero control over what the agencies do with the information.  Is the data shared with other agencies?  Uber doesn’t know and cannot prevent data sharing.

First is reporting for Regulatory purposes.  Remember that in recent years Uber and Lyft and others have faced criticism that they’re acting as a Taxi service without the regulatory oversight required of Taxi companies.  State regulators across the country made deals and are looking at usage data for these services.  There is a clear need for government regulatory agencies to have some data to better regulate the services.

Here’s how Uber put it:

Regulated transportation companies are required by law to provide certain information about their operations to local regulatory agencies. These agencies may request information about trips, trip requests, pickup and dropoff areas, fares, vehicles, and drivers in their jurisdictions for a given time period. In some cases, reporting requirements for online companies may differ or exceed what regulators demand from offline companies. And in other cases, online companies are requested to produce different types of information—like an electronic trip receipt with a trip route instead of a paper log. Both occur because regulators assume that technology companies maintain and therefore should provide these records. The statistics here show how many riders and drivers were affected by regulatory reporting requirements, the number of times we attempted to narrow or aggregate the scope of the information requested, and whether we were successful in our attempt to do so.

Uber received 33 requests for data, affecting over 11 million riders and over 500,000 drivers.  Of those, in 21.2% of cases Uber supplied data “as requested”, and in the remaining cases Uber either negotiated a narrowed scope (42.5%) or else was unable to negotiate a narrowed scope and ended up supplying the entire data requested (36.7%).  That’s almost 80% of the time where Uber thought government regulators requested too much information.

Next are the airport regulatory agencies, who also have a reasonable need for information if only to support traffic planning around airport facilities.

Separate from state and local regulatory agencies, airport authorities have the ability to regulate transportation services within and around airports. In order to operate at airports, regulated transportation companies and other similar services are required to enter into agreements created and enforced by each airport authority. These agreements vary by airport and require transportation services to report information such as trip volumes on a monthly basis; when vehicles enter and exit the airport area; where vehicles pick up and drop off within the airport area; and/or each vehicle’s registration information, license plate, and driver. The statistics here show the number of riders and drivers affected by airport reporting requirements.

That was another 34 requests, covering 1 1/2 million riders and over 150,000 drivers.  Uber did not try to modify any of those requests.

Finally there have been law enforcement requests, which Uber describes as so:

Uber receives law enforcement requests for information related to criminal investigations, and may provide information about specific trips, riders or drivers in response. Our dedicated team of experts, who are trained to manage these requests, ensures that any disclosure of information is consistent with our internal policies and applicable law. For example, we may require a subpoena, court order, or search warrant before providing different types of information. You can learn more about our process and requirements for responding to law enforcement requests here. The statistics here show how many law enforcement requests we received from local, state and federal authorities in the United States, the type of legal process they used, the number of riders and drivers affected by these requests, and how often we’ve responded with relevant information.

Information was requested from 408 rider accounts, and 205 driver accounts.  Again in a large portion of the requests Uber tried to modify the request (52.8%) and another large amount (15.4%) were withdrawn.

It’s important to note that Uber has not received any National Security Letter requests.  Uber would not be able to disclose specific NSL’s, but apparently can say they’ve not received any.  This means the spy agencies have not begun snooping on Uber’s riders.

 

 

 

 

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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