Uber has been called many things - a market disrupter and sharing economy platform or exploiter of the gig economy and market manipulator that avoids tax where it can, depending on your point of view (or politics). But defender of privacy? Until today, nobody saw the company in those terms.
Yet today sees the firm facing New York City in a court case in which it once again claims to be just a technology platform and not a licensed taxi company. What triggered the legal dispute is the requirement for any taxi operator in NYC to provide data about where fares are both picked up and dropped off. The city’s transportation regulator already collects this data from yellow cabs and uses it to monitor driver hours, airport visits (which require a specific license and fee), as well as to plan for traffic volumes across the city.
Uber is resisting, but probably not for the reasons you might expect (such as the information being commercially confidential and part of its competitive advantage). Instead, it is claiming NYC might use the data for purposes other than those stated, such as investigating what fares are charged, and might fail to protect this personal information (NYC has been hacked in the past).
Surprisingly, some privacy organisations, like Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology, have lined up alongside Uber to protest about what they see as an intrusion into the privacy of users of the service. Instead, Uber is offering to provide data which it has prepared specially, such as giving trip durations, but not the location of the drop off.
One paradox of this dispute is the Uber is far from being a respecter of its own customers’ privacy. At a basic level, it is not possible to hail one of its cars in the street and pay by cash (as with rival licensed cabs), which makes any trip and user anonymous. Instead, it can only be accessed via the company’s own app and this now tracks customers’ movements and locations all the time, not just when they are in one of its cars.
Another paradox is that Uber has set up an internal civic data team, called Project Movement, to curate its ride data and make it available to cities and transport authorities. The beta version was announced two days before the NYC court case. Interesting as the service looks, it is a long way from the open data initiatives of the like of Transport for London which now drives everything from third-party app development to out-of-home media planning usng its tap-in and service location streams.
In the short-term, it is not particularly important whether Uber or NYC wins the case as it is only likely to be the first of many and, in any case, reflects a particularly American position on data and government. In the long-term, however, there are very significant implications for the way any technology that seeks to become a utility is subject to regulation and the need for civic society to understand who commerce is making use of its infrastructure. If Uber becomes public transportation by default (which critics argue it is trying to do through agressive promotion and pricing strategies), its obligations should be in line with that ubiquity. And that includes sharing data where it impacts on the environment, infrastructure, employee and customer rights.