Uber plans to record audio during rides in the United States as part of a new security feature, its latest push to protect riders amid rising safety concerns.
The new feature, which is first to be piloted in some Latin American cities next month, allows users to opt in to activate an audio recording on any trip or all trips, according to internal communications viewed by The Washington Post and confirmed by Uber. In markets where it's available, users would likely be given a blanket warning that trips are subject to recording - and that the feature will be active in their market. Riders and drivers will not be able to listen back.
"When the trip ends, the user will be asked if everything is OK and be able to report a safety incident and submit the audio recording to Uber with a few taps," according to an email written by an Uber executive and obtained by The Post. "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 company plans to test it in the US "soon," according to the email, but the timeline for rolling it out is still unclear and may be difficult. "Laws in the United States around consent to being recorded can vary from state to state, but we hope to be able to make this available nationally," the email said.
In an interview with The Post, Sachin Kansal, Uber's head of safety products, said the feature is expected to help prove the truth of what happened on a ride, allowing the company to take decisive action.
"We have taken a position that whenever you are in an Uber, the feeling that we want both parties to have is 'the lights are on.'" he added. "That leads to safer interaction on the platform."
Still, privacy experts said the new function could be problematic to navigate in the US - a hurdle Uber acknowledged it's working to overcome.
Uber has come under fire for safety lapses that have included numerous allegations of physical assaults, incidences of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, and other forms of misconduct on the platform. Some riders and drivers have complained that the company has been slow to respond to their complaints or hasn't taken them seriously enough - feeling they're in a he said, she said situation.
A Washington Post investigation found Uber's Special Investigations Unit, its internal safety division, exists primarily to shield the company from liability when issues are arise. Uber denied the allegations. Meanwhile, a House subcommittee chairman scolded both Uber and its chief competitor, Lyft, at a hearing on the safety of ride-hailing platforms last month as both declined to attend.
The on-trip audio recording is the latest safety-oriented change the app is making amid a push to reduce violence, unwanted advances and inappropriate behaviour in its rides. Uber has added features such as in-app 911, along with automatic safety check-ins when trips veer off course as part of its Safety Toolkit.
Uber said that in the upcoming pilot, drivers can set the feature to automatically record all trips. For riders to record, they have to activate the feature through the Safety Toolkit, which becomes available before they get into the car. Drivers and passengers' recordings are placed in their trip history in case they decide to report the incident later.
But the new feature raises privacy concerns over the potential to run afoul of wiretapping and eavesdropping statutes aimed at ensuring people are not recorded without their consent. States like California, for example, require the consent of all parties to a conversation to record. Other states, such as New York, only need one party to consent.
Albert Gidari, consulting director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, said Uber runs the risk of violating those laws. What the company does with those communications is irrelevant to that conversation, he said. (Uber said its encrypted audio files would be password-protected for security.)
Uber needs to show the passengers and driver "expected they would be recorded or could be recorded in the vehicle," he said. "Absent that the fact - that it's an encrypted file is a meaningless safeguard."
Further complicating the issue is the myriad situations that could occur in an Uber, where the ride may be just a passenger and a driver or a group of passengers such as on a pooled ride. There could also be a sleeping or intoxicated passenger.
"You might have the drunk passed out in the back - you might have the additional rider who might understand it," Gidari said. "Either party can invoke it, but how can the other parties know what's happening?"
Uber and Lyft last year suspended a driver who had been secretly live-streaming passengers' trips. In Missouri, a one-party consent state, the taping was believed to be legal - but the recordings raised ethical concerns, The Post reported at the time.
Uber said it is in the midst of working out issues such as how to respond to a scenario involving multiple passengers in multiparty states.
Kansal said that in the markets where the feature is launching, riders and drivers will not be alerted the moment a recording is initiated. Rather, blanket statements to users where the feature is launching - as well as a series of prompts to activate recording within the app, such as granting microphone access - should serve as notice of potential audio collection on trips.
"If someone is already uncomfortable and they start the audio recording, we don't want there to be any escalation of that particular situation," Kansal said.
Kansal did not rule out the possibility of further applications of smartphone technology, such as the front-facing cameras already used to verify drivers' identification. But audio, Kansal said, provides a distinct advantage in its smaller file sizes and ubiquity of recording capability across smartphones.
He said that the Latin America pilot, first reported by Brazil-based press, is expected to begin in December in certain cities in Mexico and Brazil. Kansal said the timeline for testing in the US is still unclear but that Uber would pay close attention to learn lessons from its Latin America pilot.
© The Washington Post 2019