Uber to test in-car audio recording in a bid to improve safety concerns

Uber self driving car prototype testing in San Francisco.
Uber has introduced self-driving vehicles. Photo: Dllu via Wikimedia Commons

Uber – the positives

Uber has disrupted the world of transportation since launching in 2009. They now have around 95 million active users.

I’m a regular Uber user and think for cost efficiency and convenience the service is great.

The app provides an easy tracking service. Riders can pay via their PayPal account through the app. Drivers and riders can rate one another, so my experience has always been of courteous drivers.

Uber helps drivers secure regular work using their own vehicle. Many Uber drivers work part time, with a flexible system which enables them to supplement their income.

However, there is a dark side…

Woman driving in a uber car with two men
Uber has come under fire lately after a string of safety concerns for its users. Photo: Uber

Uber – the negatives

CNN Business reported last year that 103 Uber drivers in the US had been accused of assault. A driver was sentenced to 80 years imprisonment on 34 counts including rape.

CNN found that, ‘at least 31 drivers have been convicted for crimes ranging from forcible touching and false imprisonment to rape, and dozens of criminal and civil cases are pending‘.

Ridester report that Uber were subject to 433 lawsuits in the first eight months of 2017 alone.

Whilst Uber Help offers a facility to report incidents, the figures speak for themselves.

Last year Uber released a new Safety Toolkit. This includes functionality such as speed monitoring and sharing journey details with trusted contacts, so they know where you are and when will arrive.

Uber app showing screens of the Safety Toolkit
The Uber Safety Toolkit allows riders to contact the emergency services through the app. Image: Uber

The Emergency Assistance button allows users to call the authorities for help through the app. I’m not sure this is any faster than dialing 999, particularly if you don’t have an internet connection! The plus side is that the service provides your GPS location and vehicle details to help assistance reach you faster.

Passenger safety isn’t the only problem. We reported recently of the tragic accident in an Uber self-driving car which resulted in the death of a passenger.

There were 37 crashes involving Uber vehicles set in autonomous mode between September 2016 and March 2018.

This makes me question whether there needs to be more intensive testing before rolling out new innovations. Uber plans to expand on this by using drones to deliver Uber Eats take-outs.

Woman getting into the back of an Uber ride sharing car
Uber driver screening processes vary between locations. Image: Uber

Uber’s solution – audio recordings

The solution is to test pilot audio recordings in Mexico and Brazil, starting next month. Once the pilot is complete the plan is to introduce the feature in the US.

Update: Uber have since clarified that, ‘we will be exploring expanding to other countries, but we cannot detail any plans to expand beyond Brazil and Mexico at this time‘.

Passengers will be able to opt in through the Safety Toolkit. Drivers will be able to automatically record all rides. Neither driver nor passenger will know if the other has activated the feature – although ‘passengers will be warned before their ride that it may be recorded for safety reasons‘.

So Uber drivers will be able to secretly record every passenger on every journey, without express permission or telling the passenger? Am I the only person who thinks this is a massive breach of rider privacy?

Update: having reached out for comment, Uber Safety Team advise that ‘The audio file is encrypted and stored on the rider or driver’s phone and Uber has the encryption key. Riders and drivers are not able to listen to any of the contents; they can only send it to us’.

I stand both corrected and reassured that this function cannot be used unethically and appreciate the clarity. As do, I am sure, many other regular Uber riders!

GIF in Portuguese showing the new audio recording function pilot
Uber announced the new feature in São Paulo. Image: Uber

Uber says that, ‘when the trip ends, the user will be asked if everything is okay and be able to report a safety incident and submit the audio recording to Uber with a few taps‘.

When the trip ends…

How does Uber screen their drivers?

The Uber driver sign-up process includes background checks. These include:

  1. Driving license screening
  2. Verification of vehicle MOT history
  3. Checks against vehicular convictions such as DUI or reckless driving
  4. Checks for minor driving infractions
  5. Criminal records checks to rule out drivers convicted of serious criminal offences

The exact criteria that drivers are screened against varies between countries and states according to local laws and regulations. Some criteria have a time limit, for example checks for serious criminal convictions but only in the last seven years.

CBS Screening reports on how ‘Uber are being accused of allowing convicted murderers and sex offenders to drive their cabs due to a lack of proper background screening checks‘.

In London, TFL originally refused to renew Uber’s license. This was reinstated last summer, when ‘new measures were announced to co-operate with the police over allegations of driver misconduct – Transport for London’s main concern when it refused a new licence.’

Update: Uber say that ‘our hope is that it empowers riders and drivers to have safe interactions on the platform‘.

Uber app shown on an iPhone
Uber has grown massively despite its concerns. Photo: Uber

So – will we be safer?

This whole concept makes me concerned. I have so many questions…

  • Does Uber have such little confidence in their verification system that they need to record every journey to prevent a customer from being attacked?
  • Do they not take up full employment or character references?
  • Is this really to help improve safety – or a way to reduce insurance costs and indemnify Uber against any potential legal claims of poor safeguarding?
  • Surely a more robust employment process would be a better preventative measure?

I think that dash-cams have shown us that in-car safety equipment can be extremely valuable. This has helped identify responsibility in accidents, understand how incidents have occurred, and identify dangerous driving to help the police to crack down in a more effective way.

Having dash-cams in passenger and commercial vehicles is great – but – it is the vehicle owners choice to install them. I don’t think I would be comfortable having my every utterance recorded any time I use an Uber.

I feel that this mitigates the inherent responsibility of Uber to ensure that their drivers are all subject to a robust verification process. This is as one would expect of any job role which involves direct contact with potentially vulnerable people.

Update: Since publishing, Uber have confirmed that audio recordings will be encrypted and only accessible by their central team. They say that, ‘this helps promote accountability while also protecting privacy and can also help our safety team to take decisive action when needed‘.

What do you think? Am I completely wrong and should be welcoming this new pilot? Would you feel safer having your Uber journeys audio recorded (Update: now appreciating that this data is encrypted)? Let me know what you think!

[Update 22/11/2029 – We added in comments from the Uber Safety Team and a GIF from the announcement in São Paulo in Portuguese after reaching out for comment.]
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