File photo – The logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone over a reserved lane for taxis in a street is seen in this photo illustration taken in Madrid on Dec. 10, 2014. (REUTERS/Sergio Perez)
They call it the “sharing economy” for a reason.
Uber is one of a growing number “peer-to-peer” networks touted as a way to save you money, but there’s a lingering question about what these services mean for user rights and privacy.
What seems like booking a low-cost Uber ride from a friendly driver is actually (meaning: mostly) an exchange between you and a massive corporate entity that cooperates frequently with law enforcement.
Recently, the case involving Jussie Smollett shed new light on the issue. The star of the show “Empire” allegedly hired two brothers to stage an attack on him, and the Chicago Police used surveillance cameras and, more importantly, tracked their Uber ride using credit card records. In fact, it was the Uber purchase that ultimately revealed their identities.
That’s more common than you might think, says attorney Abbas Kazerounian.
“Uber's records are frequently used in criminal cases,” he told Fox News. “In the last six months of 2015, Uber received 415 data requests from various U.S. law enforcement agencies, and almost all of those requests pertained to criminal investigations, such as cases of fraud, theft, or assault. Throughout this six-month time period, only 28 requests for data were from court orders.”
“Technology comes with its own form of fascism,” adds analyst Roger Kay. “The sharing economy is not at all grey. It's a large organization held together by technology, which is quite an exacting master. It's always official. When you book with Lyft or Uber, that record becomes part of a huge database that manages all the resources and handles billing.”
It’s an interesting dilemma. In many ways, you give up your privacy in order to share your data with a massive corporation worth billions (be it Uber, Facebook, or Google). Jumping on a subway or taking the bus (or even using a taxi) does not require quite the same compromise, especially if you pay with cash. With Uber or Lyft, you’re sharing your exact route at all times, in addition to your credit card details, home address, phone number, and more.
“Pretty much everything we do these days is recorded,” says consumer analyst Rob Enderle. “If this was just peer-to-peer, then finding the Uber driver to question would have been a serious problem. It used to be with cabs you needed to know the name of the cab company and likely even the division so you could run down the record. Now all of this is centralized and you can often backtrack through the credit card transaction to the more detailed records.”
“You could argue that Jussie Smollett's arrest was due as much to his own ignorance as it was to a top-notch police investigation,” adds IT analyst Charles King. Indeed, Kazerounian notes that Chicago has the highest number of security cameras of any U.S. city (about 32,000).
Uber declined to comment when contacted by Fox News. In a 2017 blog post, however, the company argues that tech can play an ethical role in both privacy and public safety.
King told Fox News that technology is now so pervasive that many crimes are now traceable.
The burning question, though, is whether non-criminals are happy with this arrangement.
Take Craigslist, for example. It’s a vast peer-to-peer network, but once you share your phone number and email address, it becomes a treasure trove for telemarketers. You purchase a couch or a used car from a neighbor, but there’s always a middle-man.
“Consumers need to be careful not to share personally identifiable information when using person-to-person platforms because even if the person you are interacting with is legitimate, there is a chance that sharing personal information might be displayed on the internet where an illegitimate party might use the information for nefarious purposes,” says Kazerounian.
It’s not just Uber. The phone in your pocket is also tracking your whereabouts, sometimes without your permission based on when and where you attach to a Wi-Fi network. The data is saved forever, and Kazerounian explained that Uber records are used in marital disputes, to prove adulterous affairs, and to show that one party has enough income to pay alimony.
Everything about us is traceable. Now we have to decide if that’s really what we want.