Uber And Lyft Push Back Against D.C. Council Demand For Data, Citing Privacy Concerns
May 24, 2018
By The 2030 Group
By: Martin Austermuhle
Uber and Lyft are expressing concern over a provision inserted into a D.C. budget bill at the last minute that would require them to turn over large amounts of ride data to the city. The companies say that detailed information about a person’s travel habits could fall victim to hackers taking aim at government computers.
The provision would require ride-hailing companies, including Uber, Lyft and Via, to turn over data on trips they provide beginning next year. The data would include the time and location trips start and end, the number of passengers, the fare, and whether the ride was given as part of a single-passenger service or as part of a carpooling option like Uber Pool or Lyft Line.
The companies would have to hand over the data quarterly to the D.C. Department of For-Hire vehicles, which regulates taxicabs, limousines and phone-based ride-hailing services.
Data like this has long been of interest to governments. They say it could help them better track and predict traffic flows and pinch points. But it has also been tightly guarded by ride-hailing companies, who argue that it is private and proprietary. The companies also say the new provision, which was approved by the D.C. Council on a first vote earlier this month, could put their data at risk of being hacked.
“It’s an enormous volume of data that’s being requested, and this is people’s private information about how they move around the city — when they go to work, when they go to medical appointments, maybe they’re visiting a divorce lawyer, it could be all kinds of things that people want to keep themselves,” said Colin Tooze, a spokesman with Uber. “And to have to share it with the District in a form that could be de-anonymized and exposed to public view in the future raises some really serious questions.”
In a statement, Lyft spokeswoman Campbell Matthews echoed Uber’s position.
“We have serious concerns about the impact of the City Council’s requests on user privacy and proprietary information,” she said.
Tooze says Uber isn’t opposed to the principle of sharing data with governments. Last month, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi announced at an event in D.C. with Mayor Muriel Bowser that the company would partner with SharedStreets, a non-profit organization that allows private companies to share data with government in order to provide aggregate data on drop-off and pickups in certain heavily trafficked areas in D.C.
But Tooze says discussions on a data-sharing arrangement with D.C. could be upended by the Council’s provision — which Uber only learned of the weekend before it came up for a vote.
Bowser administration officials say they were also caught off-guard.
“It came as a bit of a surprise for us,” said Andrew Trueblood, the chief of staff to D.C. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner. “We’ve been working with all the companies to figure out how to best gather data from them to address both questions of regulation and safety as well as transportation policy.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says that the data-sharing provision is likely to be fine-tuned before a final vote next week to address Uber and Lyft’s concerns.
“The language is not set in stone, and there are discussions ongoing with the different companies to mitigate some of their concerns,” Mendelson said. “We don’t need to be making the companies vulnerable to competitors or bad actors, and privacy is a concern.”
Tooze stresses that Uber remains willing to share its data with D.C. to help address public policy challenges like traffic, transit and parking, but wants to make sure the data it provides protects riders’ privacy.
“There are ways to share data that won’t put people’s privacy at risk,” he said. “We could become slightly less specific about pickup and dropoff areas, but still give leaders information about how people are moving around the area.”
The fight over data-sharing isn’t the only one being fought by ride-hailing companies in the Council. They’ve also started pushing back on a Council proposal that would increase a per-ride tax they already pay from 1 percent to 6 percent, with the proceeds going towards Metro funding.
Uber and Lyft say they do not oppose an increase, but would prefer that the tax distinguish between single riders and riders who use carpooling offerings.
“If there’s a way to tax Uber Pool at a lower rate than a product that has a single passenger in the car, we think that’s a smart example the District can follow,” said Tooze.
In a letter to Mendelson this week, Bowser, who had originally proposed a smaller tax hike, agreed with Uber and Lyft: “By raising the per-ride tax… to 6 percent across the board, the Council disincentivizes the use of pooled rides and unfairly disadvantages lower-income riders who rely on pooled services,” she wrote.
Mendelson said he met with drivers from one of the ride-hailing services to hear their concerns, but said the existing tax-hike proposal may not end up changing.
“The argument that somehow having a lower rate for pooled and a higher rate for the individual rides when we’re talking about a difference of maybe a nickel… there’s no evidence that shows that that really affects decisions by riders,” he said.