By on July 20, 2020

Uber Technologies Inc. has kicked off a new service that provides public health officials immediate access to data on drivers and riders who may have been in contact with someone infected with COVID-19. Weirdly, the company decided against announcing the sharing of your whereabouts with the government with any fanfare. Perhaps they thought average people wouldn’t be interested, or maybe that broadcasting their own participatory role in crafting a nightmare dystopia could be bad for business.

Then again, maybe this is exactly the kind of mass surveillance we need to flatten the curve, stop the spread, or whatever slogan is currently the trendiest. Worried? Don’t be. Uber said this service will be offered free of charge, meaning you don’t even have to spend any additional money to have your information shared.

What a sweet deal! 

As this isn’t a medical journal, we can’t speak to the effectiveness of this strategy. We’ve seen it floating around for a while, with Big Tech gleefully eager to lend a hand and help combat the pandemic through contract tracing applications. You may have even seen one pop up on your phone recently following recent software update. From what we’ve seen, contract tracing has plenty of advocates and detractors.

Uber has actually been sharing data for months at this point, according to Reuters. The firm has only gotten vocal about it lately to promote itself to government health officials around the world. Data is collected and then sold to governments so health agencies can decide which persons need to be placed in quarantine.

From Reuters:

Uber has long provided data to U.S. law enforcement officials in emergencies or criminal investigations, companies officials said. It first began to focus on health-related issues in 2019, when a resurgence of U.S. measles cases prompted several health departments to request data, the officials said.

In January, company executives flew to Los Angeles to meet with the local health department and CDC officials to discuss how Uber’s data could best be used, according to Uber’s chief of global law enforcement, Mike Sullivan.

The discussion quickly turned to the novel coronavirus, which at the time was only beginning to spread outside of China.

“Our timing ended up being beneficial in that it allowed us to get ahead before COVID started ramping up globally,” said Sullivan, a veteran U.S. prosecutor who leads a team of 100 Uber employees handling data requests around the clock.

Uber reportedly designed a portal for exclusive utilization by public health departments. Information can be broken down by either trip receipts or passenger name. From there, the government can tell the company what actions they want it to take in regard to the paying customer they’ve ratted out to the feds.
“We want to make sure that they are the experts and we follow their recommendations” on whether to block temporarily a driver/rider from being able to travel, explained Sullivan. Though the company automatically bans anybody it believes is infected automatically for two weeks.
Government response varies between regions, with the United States being more passive/fractured than European nations or Australia. Tracing requests in the U.S. has proven more sporadic, often with some states taking a bigger interest in it than others — something which is also true of Canada. Reuters noted that Lyft also confirmed it’s been providing data to North American health officials through its Law Enforcement Request system. It declined to provide additional details however, hysterically citing privacy.
For what it’s worth, Uber told us it doesn’t share anything that isn’t pertinent to the public health issue at hand, but that’s an evolving definition left largely to its own discretion. Governments may also decide that additional data could be useful and request it — making it seem like the customer has less control of their data than we’d hope. It’s quite the pickle. Nobody seems eager to get this virus, but the amount that we’ve had to give up just to remain safe (though that seems a relative term based on infection/death rates) has already been a big ask.
[Image: MikeDotta/Shutterstock]
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8 Comments on “Uber Offering COVID-19 Contract Tracing Data to Government Entities...”

  • avatar

    Cell phone data is already used for multiple reasons. Contact tracing requires you to find people. Taxi’s and Uber type services are very high risk.

    • 0 avatar

      I would have to agree. Usually, I’m a rabid privacy advocate, but for getting the virus under control, I support it. Car-sharing is kind of scary now. I used Uber twice this past month. I only did it because NY’s numbers are good (for now) and I asked that all the windows be rolled all the way down.

      Considering the Constitutional crisis we are having now, this is nothing. And it should sunset when the pandemic ends.

  • avatar

    I have no problem with my data being used in the current situation for this type of purpose, but no one should be profiting off my data but me, and NO ONE should be profiting off data used for this purpose.

  • avatar

    Way back in pre 2010, clutching my new Android smartphone, I checked with Google after a few days. It told me how to get to work, even so far as to tell me to turn left out of my driveway. I really didn’t need the advice, having covered the route for 25 years. I turned off location, and have wandered blindly ever since, except on vacation outside my province — first thing I do when I get a new phone is turn off location. Nobody’s business but mine. Google thinks I live in Montreal whenever I deign to use the Chrome browser, but I’m 800 miles away. Montreal is where my cellphone provider hangs out. Baruth suggested using DuckDuckGo as my search engine some years ago, and so I do — no tracking.

    Young people like my niece seem perfectly happy broadcasting their whereabouts, and since all these creepy companies want to sell what data they gather, I’d say any chance of personal privacy went up the spout years ago. We say we’re democratic and those dastardly Chinese spy on their citizens and give them a social rating. If someone can tell me the practical difference between that and the secret way we go about it here with companies handing over their info on us behind our backs, my retort is that the difference lies somewhere between zero and nothing. We just get to bleat we’re free.

    • 0 avatar

      I would rather have Chinese spy on me than the US govt. I make every effort to avoid the American technology. I use Huawei phone and am very happy with it. People need to resist this totalitarian regime even though it may seem futile.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      I’ve been pretty happy using DuckDuckGo as well. Even without the monitoring, Google is so loaded with ads that you have to thumb through half a dozen pages to find anything specific and its algorithm eventually reaches a point where it has a hard time offering up something novel.

    • 0 avatar

      The difference is that if you have a bad social credit rating in China, you can’t even rent an apartment or buy a train ticket. And you’ll regularly get visits from your local office of public security to make sure you’re staying in your place.

      Having corporation trying to sell you protein shakes is uh, not quite that bad.

      Seriously though the issue isnt the data. It’s what is done with it. I dont really care if my data is used to try to sell me shit. I care a lot if my data is used by the govt to curtail where and how I can live my life.

  • avatar

    If only “corporations” could go to prison, what a wonderful world this could be.

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