Reuters reports that Uber has quietly launched a service to give public health officials quick access to data on drivers and riders presumed to have come into contact with someone infected with COVID-19. Now Uber, one of the primary vectors spreading the disease with hundreds of thousands of masked drivers worldwide guiding shared rides without passenger-protecting partitions, is going to facilitate contact tracing for health officials worldwide.
This can be seen as Uber being super helpful to public health officials trying to track down exposures. It might reflect Uber’s awareness of its own complicity in the spread of the virus having yet to provide adequate safety measures. Or it can be seen simply as Uber automating – via a Web portal – a process of information sharing which was becoming onerous to support on a one-at-a-time basis. It can also be seen as Uber trying to score points with public officials even as it continues to operate in an unsafe manner.
Reuters: “Uber Offers Contact Tracing Help Amid Chaotic U.S. Response” – https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-uber-focus/uber-offers-covid-19-contact-tracing-help-amid-chaotic-us-response-idUSKCN24L17X
I am reminded of the virus testing that was offered in my mother’s assisted living facility. All residents and staff were tested, but my mother said she was not given the option of not being tested, nor was she availed of the potential consequences of a positive test – i.e. a relocation to another distant facility.
What if, next time a passenger hails an Uber, he or she is informed that their access to Uber services is subject to data sharing with public health authorities and law enforcement? Should that disclosure appear on the screen before requesting a ride or maybe on a sign in the backseat or on the inside of the window?
By now, millions of Americans have had their temperature and personal information taken before entering a facility, such as a gym or restaurant. Clearly these measures are in place for contact tracing in the event of an infection.
There is no overt disclosure currently being made to users of Uber, Lyft, or any other ride hailing service, which means any such data sharing is taking place under the broad and potentially ambiguous guidelines of an unread privacy statement. If Uber or any other operator is going to share ride information with health officials, a more overt disclosure of these actions – and not just a phone call to Reuters – is in order.
In a time and place where privacy is a precious but deteriorating commodity, it’s time to restore some integrity to the process of controlling our personal information. Uber, above all other operators, ought to be cognizant of the value of privacy and the cost of violating it. In the recent past the has seen multi-million-dollar fines paid and employees fired.
At a time when Uber is operating in an unsafe manner without proper driver and passenger protections, the company can hardly be seen as a paragon of coronavirus mitigation measures. Everything about Uber is unsafe from is business ethos of hacking all norms and convetions to its use of contract workers driving their own or rented cars.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only accentuated the danger of the ride hailing experience by introducing unsafe operating conditions with no in-vehicle physical barrier to viral transmission. Who is Uber to be sharing driver and passenger data? Is Uber going to test its drivers? No. Is Uber going to take the temperature of passengers? No.
According to accounts in “Super Pumped,” there was a time when former CEO Travis Kalanick’s Uber gathered data on passengers long after they had left their Uber rides. Kalanick wanted to see what he could learn about his customers and their behavior beyond the drives. This privacy invasion was detected and terminated – but it was just one of many violations of privacy engaged in by Uber.
The report from Reuters reveals a broader range of ongoing information sharing with U.S. law enforcement officials in emergencies or criminal investigations. Uber, Lyft, and other ride hailing operators have presumably been fielding and processing information requests for assistance for more than a year – leading to the creation of supportive information sharing infrastructures and, now, a COVID-19 targeted portal.
The day can’t be far away when the forward facing cameras in ride hailing vehicles, limousines, and taxis are broadly shared in real time to combat traffic scofflaws and crime or maybe just to forecast the weather. For now, though, let’s just consider this Uber incursion.
An NBC report notes: “In the first half of the year, Uber received a total of some 560 coronavirus-related requests from public health departments in 29 countries, most of which were processed by the company within two hours, company officials said. That compares to only 10 requests from health departments globally in 2019.”
Uber is now offering a portal for public health departments to make data requests based on trip receipts or passenger names. Health officials are prompted to specify what actions they want Uber to take, notes NBC. Uber told NBC that “customers with a confirmed infection are automatically blocked from the platform for at least 14 days.”
I am already envisoining the stricken COVID-19 sufferer getting his or her positive test results and hailing an Uber to get to the hospital – only to be rejected by the platform now that the data sharing has kicked in. Crazy, right?
Contact tracing is an important and essential element to reversing the resurgence of the coronavirus. What is most remarkable about the Uber initiative is that it appears to single out one transportation service provider rather than reflecting a wholistic approach encompassing all transportation resources. Might this lead to a new sort of COVID-free transit credential usable for all modes of transportation?
Uber is a viral vector, so its cooperation in sharing this information makes sense. It is practically an admission of guilt or responsibility for potentially helping to spread the virus. That being said, a more overt disclosure to Uber drivers and passengers regarding this data sharing initiative is essential.
Perhaps even more important, we need a reconception of privacy in a post-COVID-19 world. European countries that embraced contact tracing software from Google have only just come to the realization that the code will capture and share location information with Google. Nothing less than a process of re-educating consumers regarding proper privacy etiquette and hygiene is necessary. With COVID-19 looming the pressure is on to rethink our naive notions of privacy in the context of beating back a pandemic.