Citing passenger safety and a need to combat driver fatigue, the city has proposed new rules that would require Uber and similar companies to share passenger pickup and drop-off data—but the ride-hailing company says these regulations could endanger its passengers, and is seeking to enlist them in its latest battle with the city.
On Wednesday, NYC-based Uber customers received an email with the subject line "The government wants to know where you're headed ... on every ride" that encouraged them to tweet at the Taxi and Limousine Commission using the hashtag #TLCDontTrackMe.
"Today, New York City requires Uber and other companies to hand over a lot of sensitive personal data, including where you're picked up on every trip," the email states. "Now, New York City wants more. They're trying to force companies to tell them where you're dropped off as well."
In a statement, Uber spokesperson Alix Alifang claimed that the proposed regulations would endanger passengers' and drivers' privacy. "We cannot understand why at the exact moment City Hall is fighting to delete municipal ID data, it also wants to collect more personal information—information which it does not need, and which could easily become public."
The TLC says that the regulations, which are part of Mayor de Blasio's Vision Zero initiative to reduce traffic fatalities, are an important way to curb driver fatigue—and that the data is a major part of enforcing safety rules. During a Thursday morning TLC hearing, senior analyst Madeline Labadie said that the agency would not be collecting passenger data at all.
"Any trip data that TLC provides to the public will not contain any driver or vehicle license numbers, and trip location information would provide neighborhood, not specific location addresses," Labadie said. A TLC spokesperson told Gothamist that the agency would not be collecting passengers' personal information, including their names, addresses, or exact locations, nor do they plan on disclosing drivers' TLC numbers, plate numbers, or other identifying information.
Uber and its supporters maintain that making even this data publicly available would put passengers at risk. "By adding drop-off time and location to the collected data as proposed by the rule, the privacy risk posed by this dataset grows substantially," Lauren Smith, policy counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank backed by several major technology firms, testified at the hearing. "Evidence shows that even with with robust de-identification, the more data points that are added to a data set, the easier it is to re-identify individuals."
In November, Uber released an update that asks users if it can track their location after their rides have ended. A 2016 suit against the company alleged that employees regularly abused its "God view," which let them track customers, to spy on "high-profile politicians, celebrities, and even personal acquaintances of Uber employees."
Council Member Brad Lander cited other policies the data could be used for, including increasing accessibility; determining how benefits like health insurance or unemployment might work for drivers; improving enforcement of illegal street hails at places like airports; and investigating driver complaints.
"I know that you're getting some pushback on these rules, and that's not entirely surprising," Lander said. "At the Council, we've also experienced that Uber and other large companies who have this data are reluctant to share it." The public benefits of curtailing driver fatigue, Lander said, "far exceed" the concerns posed by Uber.
Fatigued drivers, officials say, can cause serious traffic accidents or car crashes. "Fatigue does not just cause you to fall asleep at the wheel: it causes impaired decision-making, attentional lapses, impaired reaction time, and can be every bit just as serious as distracted or alcohol-impaired driving," said Mike Geraci of the National Highway Traffic Administration.
Yellow cab dispatchers have been handing over driver trip data to the TLC since 2009, Labadie said, enabling the city to track how long drivers are on the road. The city plans on using this combined pickup and drop-off information to implement a new 10-hour cap on driving time. This would be measured by tracking the time drivers spend completing trips (currently, drivers are capped at 12 hours on the road, but that includes cruising time and time spent driving to pick up passengers). The 10-hour cap would only account for time that drivers are transporting passengers; it would not include breaks or time spent looking for customers.
If the new regulations are implemented, drivers who exceed the 10-hour limit will be issued warnings—repeat offenders will be issued summonses, and officials said all drivers who surpassed the limit would have to attend classes about the dangers of fatigued driving.
Although Uber is pushing back against the new regulations, some driver advocates said they worry the new rules don't go far enough to prevent fatigue and that they give drivers working with ride-sharing apps an upper hand over yellow and green cabbies.
"This commission creates, promotes, and sustains an illegal playing field that clearly favors for-hire drivers and companies," David Beier, president of the driver advocacy group Committee for Taxi Safety, said at the hearing. "The result of these rules will be that e-hail drivers will be able to drive longer hours than taxi drivers, because many e-hail rides are to the outer boroughs and airports."
"Driving time is driving time and fatigue is fatigue," Beier said. "Whether or not a passenger is in the car has no relevance. The rule should be easy to enforce: 12 hours a day, seven days a week, no exceptions."