Here's Why Uber Sent An Alarming Email To Some Riders This Week

Photo: Courtesy of Uber.
It's standard to receive a weekly email from Uber with deals (20% off Uber Pool!) or information about app updates, but Tuesday, January 3, brought a very different kind of message. New York City customers opened their inboxes to find an email with a somewhat alarming subject line: "The government wants to know where you’re headed...on every ride." Scary, no?

The message went on to detail a recent proposal from the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), which, if passed, would require Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing services to give the government data about the exact locations where passengers are dropped off. These companies are already required to report passenger pick-up locations. "In other words, they want to piece together the full details of every trip you ever take," Uber's email says, before asking riders to tweet against the proposal.

Uber's request for support might sound ironic, given that the company has been called out for its own data collection. Plus, it has a history of fighting with local governments, including its recent battle against San Francisco over putting self-driving cars on the road.

But this particular situation is especially interesting because it isn't clear who is in the right — the government or ride-sharing companies — proving just how complicated issues centered around fears of privacy protection and data collection have become.

The TLC says the trip reporting rule would "address the risks of fatigued drivers." If they know pick-up and drop-off points, they can better approximate how long drivers are on the road and ensure that they aren't working more than 60 hours per week.

According to Lyft, Uber, and various advocacy groups — including the Future of Privacy Forum, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — it isn't the drop-off address that the TLC should be requiring. It's the drop-off time. Their primary concern, which they will be expressing at a hearing taking place today, January 5, in New York, is the security of sensitive rider information. It's no surprise that since the election concerns about hacking have come front and center.

"It's unclear if these agencies have the latest technologies to be protecting data and it's not clear what other agencies would have access," says Lauren Smith, policy council at the Future of Privacy Forum.

The TLC says the information it collects will remain anonymous. The agency is not asking for passenger names nor credit cards information, but Smith and Uber point to an instance in 2014, when open records request revealed where celebrities were located and how much they were tipping.

It's difficult to determine which organization is right in this case. The TLC claims it's trying to protect workers. Uber claims it's fighting to protect passenger data. Both might have motives that aren't transparent to the consumer. Unfortunately, as technology makes it easier and easier for both businesses and the government to collect our information, these cases will become more common. It's up to the consumer to stay informed and seek out both sides of the issue, even when the right answer isn't always obvious.

We will continue to update this post with news about the proposed rule.