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Uber Audio Recordings For Safety – But Whose?

“Attention! This ride may be recorded for customer satisfaction, safety, and training purposes. (Also to cover our butts legally.)”

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Such a recording would never happen, of course – no company likes to admit it is self-serving even though all must be to stay in business. But it’s fun to imagine what words the leading new transportation provider will select to smooth over a new initiative that could be construed as privacy invasion.

In the name of customer safety, ride-sharing company Uber announced a new opt-in program that allows drivers and passengers to record the audio portion of their journey. A pilot test program is planned for Mexico and Brazil next month before making the decision to roll out this new feature in the United States.

Uber drivers will be able to set up the feature to record all rides automatically. Riders will have to turn on the feature from the Safety Toolkit on the mobile app before getting into the summoned vehicle.

Rather than receive a specific notification when audio recording begins, a general warning will alert drivers and riders to the possibility that this ride may be recorded.

The app’s new feature will let Uber riders report a safety issue by submitting the audio recording for review by an employee to determine if someone engaged in misconduct or crime during the ride. The app saves the audio record, giving the rider the option of reporting a foul later.

An Uber executive described in an email how the new app feature works:

“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. The encrypted audio file is sent to Uber’s customer support agents who will use it to better understand an incident and take the appropriate action.”

The recordings will be protected by encryption but neither drivers nor passengers will have direct access to them. Uber’s policy also states that audio recordings will be shared with law enforcement upon request.

The head of safety products at Uber, Sachin Kansal, said in a Washington Post interview that his company aspires to inspire their employees and customers with the reassuring feeling that, during an Uber drive, “the lights are on.”

The new safety feature Uber is testing in a few large cities is a response to recurring safety concerns during rides in Latin American countries. Both drivers and passengers have been the victims of theft and assault (some of it sexual), and murder.

Claudia Woods directs Uber operations in Brazil. In her opinion, the subject of safety is likely to grow in importance where ride-sharing is concerned:

“What we know is that as the economic issues in Latin America get worse, the tendency is for crime to also get worse.”

Passenger safety is also a growing issue in the United States and India. The Washington Post revealed in September that the main purpose of Uber’s internal safety division is to protect the corporation from legal liability and secondarily to protect drivers and riders.

If the new audio recording program, in the name of safety, is deemed effective in the two testbed nations, Uber may expand the feature locally and, perhaps, even wider.

Corporate financial documents reveal “numerous and increasing reports” of Latin American drivers and riders being “victimized by violent crime, such as armed robbery, violent assault, and rape while taking or providing a trip on our platform.”

Privacy advocates say Uber’s new surveillance audio recordings during rides without explicit prior knowledge by the driver and/or rider violates civil privacy rights. Some U.S. states have wiretapping statutes that prohibit recording people without consent from all parties to a conversation.

Uber’s legal staff is smoothing out the rough edges of American law, undoubtedly because the company plans already to deploy this invasive technology in high-crime areas worldwide, including North America.

In 2018, CNN discovered that “at least 103 Uber drivers in the U.S. who have been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing their passengers in the past four years.”

In the face of these allegations, Uber’s new self-styled safety app feature makes great sense: document rides to prove or disprove complaints submitted about a ride while shielding the company’s coffers from punitive civil damages.

But won’t video recording come next? Is inescapable, always-on surveillance the reality of our future?

Only time will tell if American consumers will even blink an eye about a generic warning that their Uber ride might be monitored for safety purposes – followed by a string of third-party ads.

Color us cynical. But Big Brother is watching.

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