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Uber involvement leads privacy groups to back out of coalition

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  • Several major digital privacy groups pulled their support for an Uber-backed influence campaign after learning of the company’s involvement, WIRED first reported Thursday.
  • The campaign, Communities Against Rider Surveillance, is a coalition of 25 organizations that Uber helped form to steer the debate around cities’ use of scooter and e-bike trip data.
  • Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer told Business Insider she shared concerns about trip data and privacy but that the group backed out of CARS because Uber’s involvement was not “clearly disclosed.”
  • Uber sued Los Angeles earlier this year over its use of trip data, an issue that has drawn pushback from CARS and a bevy other privacy advocates who worry how cities and law enforcement might abuse it.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Uber’s quiet involvement with a group trying to shape public debate around cities’ use of scooter and e-bike trip data has scared off several of its big-name supporters, WIRED first reported Thursday.

The group, Communities Against Rider Surveillance, is backed by 25 organizations including Uber and was formed with the goal of “making our streets safer and more manageable while protecting rider privacy,” according to its website.

But despite sharing some of the same worries about data privacy, advocacy groups Fight for the Future and Algorithmic Justice League withdrew from CARS after learning that Uber is one of its main backers, according to WIRED, while racial equality group MediaJustice told Business Insider it similarly “immediately pulled out.”

“It was frustrating to have to pull out of this coalition,” Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer told Business Insider.

“We share their concerns about the ways that transportation data, even when anonymized, could be abused by government agencies, law enforcement, and others,” Greer said, “But Uber’s involvement and backing of the effort was not clearly disclosed to us. We think companies should engage in advocacy transparently.”

Uber refused to comment on the sources of CARS’ funding, directing Business Insider to the coalition, which could not immediately be reached for comment on this story.

Other members of CARS contacted by Business Insider raised similar worries about Uber’s track record as a company, but said they would continue to support the coalition’s work around privacy.

“I have concerns about Uber, of course (rotten pay for drivers, horrible corporate environment, etc, etc),” said Patient Privacy Rights President Dr. Deborah Peel, but she added that “the rest of the coalition is organizations that speak for the public’s best interest.”

Tracy Rosenberg of Oakland Privacy said she took issue with Uber’s “corporate performance in many aspects” but that she was aware of its involvement in CARS. “On the limited issue of whether raw mobility trip data should be transferred to cities directly or to third parties, we believe unequivocally that it should not be.”

An Uber spokesperson told Business Insider that the company is glad to be a founding member of CARS and to see more organizations speaking out on the issue, saying Uber believes government demands for trip-level data violate riders’ privacy.

CARS’ advocacy is focused specifically on Mobility Data Specification, a data-sharing standard developed by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation that is used by cities to track scooter and e-bike locations. As urban streets have become increasingly crowded with ride-share companies’ vehicles, cities like Los Angeles have passed regulations on their use, some of which have included requirements that companies like Uber — which until recently owned scooter and e-bike startup Jump — share anonymous, near-real-time data on individual trips.

That approach has prompted concerns from the ride-hail companies, citing rider privacy and, implicitly, the potential it will expose their trade secrets. In March, Uber sued LADOT over its collection of trip-level data.

Meanwhile, privacy advocates ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation filed their own lawsuit against the city in June, saying it was an overreach of government surveillance and could lead to misuse of the data by law enforcement agencies.

In their heated battle with ride-hail companies over which data they should be required to provide, cities’ distrust of the companies has been fueled in part by Uber’s own checkered history around transparency and data privacy as well as its persistent opposition to regulation. In 2017, The New York Times revealed Uber was intentionally deceiving authorities by serving up a fake version of its app to local officials. Later that year, WIRED reported that Uber tried to cover up a data breach involving 57 million users by paying the hackers a $100,000 ransom.

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