Uber downplays privacy concerns raised by NYC data request

Concerns raised abruptly by Uber and its New York City users this week were downplayed by the local Taxi Commission at a hearing held Thursday a day after the company and its customers denounced new regulations proposed by the mayor’s office in a widely sent email.

The New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) said the agency didn’t plan to collect any intimate data involving Uber rides Thursday, a day after an outcry emerged after the company issued a call to arms via email to area customers. Instead, rather, a representative said the agency wants Uber to share new details about their drivers’ routes for safety concerns, sans any uniquely identifying information.

“Today, New York City requires Uber and other companies to hand over a lot of sensitive personal data, including where you’re picked up on every trip,” the email said. “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. Click below to send a clear message that enough is enough,” Uber continued. The email was accompanied by a link that auto-completed a message to the commission that said: “My trips around town are my own business, not the government’s.”

The request for ride details comes amid Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ongoing “Vision Zero” initiative that aims to reduce the number of traffic fatalities in the city in part by combating driver fatigue.

Regulations sought by the mayor’s office would require drivers who use Uber and competing services to spend no more than 10 hours per day behind the wheel, taking into account an eight-hour resting period between shifts. Since Uber currently doesn’t share drop-off information, however, the city can’t easily tell if its drivers are up in compliance. To solve this dilemma, TLC wants Uber to share drop-off details, in turn giving the government previously unprovided information about car services’ routes.

An avalanche of privacy concerns following Uber’s Wednesday email was proceeded Thursday by commission saying the city wasn’t seeking anything too specific.

The taxi commission would not be collecting any identifying passenger or driver details under the proposal, TLC senior analyst Madeline Labadie said at Thursday’s hearing, as reported by the Gothamist website.

“Any trip data that TLC provides to the public will not contain any driver or vehicle license numbers, and trip location information would provide neighborhood, not specific location addresses,” she said.

Nonetheless, Uber and other critics have said the information sought by the city could still put their passengers’ safety at risk, especially in light of high-profile data breaches being increasingly reported.

“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,” Uber said in a statement.

Lauren Smith, policy counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum think tank, extrapolated upon the sensitivity of such data while arguing on Uber’s behalf at Thursday’s hearing.

“By adding drop-off time and location to the collected data as proposed by the rule, the privacy risk posed by this dataset grows substantially,” she testified. “Evidence shows that even with with robust de-identification, the more data points that are added to a data set, the easier it is to re-identify individuals.”

If and when the new regulations are implemented, ride-share drivers who exceed the 10-hour limit will be face penalties ranging from warnings and summonses to city-ordered driving classes.

 

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