By Tandy Mathis, Elena Mitchell, and Mindy Vervais
Did you know that if you’ve taken a New York City taxi since 2009, your pick-up and drop-off locations were recorded and published (through June of 2016) on the internet for anyone to find? Now, New York City officials want ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft to start providing drop-off and pick-up location data, too.
The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, or TLC, currently collects all kinds of trip data from New York City taxis—including pick-up and drop-off dates and times, coordinates of the start and end location of every trip, total trip distances and duration, fares, payment types, and passenger counts. It then publishes that data online periodically, which has allowed online data-miners to figure out the identities of drivers, their income, and potentially where their homes are just by analyzing the data. A summer intern at Neustar has similarly deduced that by correlating the data with celebrity news gossip and Google images of celebrities getting into or leaving cabs, he can find out about the taxi rides of celebrities like Bradley Cooper and Jessica Alba.
The TLC already collects pick-up location data for every ride on ride-sharing applications like Uber and Lyft. But now, the TLC wants ride-sharing companies to also provide drop-off location data for every trip. Just this month, the TLC proposed amendments to a rule it adopted in July of 2016 addressing driver fatigue. One of the amendments would require ride-sharing companies to report drop-off location data in addition to pick-up location data on a weekly basis to the TLC. This would include the date, time, and location of every drop-off, as well as whether the trip was shared. Another amendment would set a maximum number of hours that drivers are allowed to drive. The TLC’s rationale is that by collecting more data on trip duration and limiting how long drivers may drive, the commission can ensure that drivers do not drive an excessive number of hours or risk driving while fatigued. The TLC also believes that collecting such specific data will help city officials investigate complaints about unsafe driving alleged to have occurred during or between trips, and help the city target resources where they are needed most by understanding when and where trips occur.
The TLC says it won’t require ride-sharing companies to report personal details of passengers such as their names, credit card numbers, or other identifiable information. It also says it won’t publish specific drop-off addresses online or include them in its responses to public record requests. But even though the TLC promises to “maintain the privacy and confidentiality of the additional data,” Uber is skeptical and has challenged the amendment, stating: “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.’” That statement is from an e-mail sent by Uber to its New York City customers earlier in January, informing them of the TLC’s intention to collect such data, and encouraging them to protest the proposed rule by posting on social media with the hashtag #TLCDontTrackMe. The e-mail was titled: “The government wants to know where you’re headed … on every ride.”
Uber has suggested that it could provide the TLC with general trip duration data instead, which it argues the commission could use to ensure that drivers are not driving excessive hours. Uber also already provides an online portal that aggregates and anonymizes trip data to help city planners evaluate transport systems and civic infrastructure, so it does not think the TLC needs exact pick-up and drop-off locations for city planning purposes. Uber also argues that providing such specific data crosses the line and violates riders’ privacy, because such information can be mined to reveal intimate details about a person’s life. These details could include not only where a person lives, but also where he or she goes to the doctor, worships, or goes for any other number of private reasons.
Uber also maintains that it doesn’t trust the TLC with the information, arguing that once the data is collected by the TLC, it will be “vulnerable to data breaches . . . vulnerable to demands from other government agencies [that] may want this data for different reasons that the TLC . . . [and,] because the TLC periodically makes at least some of this data public . . . vulnerable to re-identification by third parties.” Uber knows firsthand how difficult it can be to securely store such data because it too has been accused of insecure data practices. In October of 2016, one of Uber’s former forensic investigators accused Uber of violating governmental data protection regulations and individual privacy rights in a lawsuit against Uber for wrongful termination, defamation, and age discrimination. He alleges that he was fired after complaining to Uber about Uber’s “lack of security regarding its customer data[, which has resulted] 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.”
Even before the 2016 lawsuit, Uber has been criticized for collecting too many passenger details, too closely monitoring rides, and allowing too many employees access to users’ accounts. For example, Uber formerly allowed its employees to use a tool called “God View” to monitor passengers’ trips. God View provided employees with aerial views of all of Uber’s cars on the roads and displayed personal information about the passengers within them. Once the New York City Attorney General’s Office began an investigation into Uber’s use of God View, however, Uber replaced it with a new tool that does not display individuals’ personal information and is only available to certain employees. Still, the Uber application currently allows the company to access a passenger’s location data from the moment he or she requests a ride, until five minutes after the passenger is dropped off—making many users uncomfortable. Until November of 2016, Uber did not collect passenger location data during the trip or after drop off.
Even as Uber asserts that it is enhancing privacy and data security measures to protect sensitive passenger information from prying employees, hackers, and others who might misuse or otherwise make such data public, the TLC’s proposed rule now means the company also has to worry about keeping the government and the public out of its data. And although the TLC says that it wants such information for public safety and city planning purposes, passenger privacy should still be considered as part of the analysis. After all, couldn’t the TLC just as effectively monitor driver fatigue and city transit processes by collecting more general trip duration and location data? And is it necessary or prudent that the TLC post that data online for public access? One can only hope that the TLC will give proper consideration to the privacy implications and risks of its proposed rule, and maybe even narrow the rule with an eye towards protecting consumer privacy.