Bad Trip

03.28.14

Uber’s Biggest Problem Isn’t Surge Pricing. What If It’s Sexual Harassment by Drivers?

Private car services are popular among women who want to stay safe, but reports allege sexual harassment by drivers. Is it time to rethink services like Uber?

One afternoon in late September, I opened the Uber app and requested a ride. For the unitiated, Uber is a hugely popular app that allows people to summon a private car with a few taps of their fingers. Since launching in 2009, the company has expanded to 34 countries, mainstreaming on-demand private transportation.

I met the Uber at the corner of the street where I live near Lincoln Center in New York City, and asked the driver to take me across town. It was an unremarkable trip.

Until the end. 

At the end of the ride, the Uber driver asked me if I had been near Lincoln Center a few hours earlier. I said I hadn't, since I didn't remember walking past there. Then he took out his iPad. "Really?" he asked. "Because you look like this girl." He turned the iPad around to face the back seat. To my surprise, I saw a full-length, close-up picture of me, wearing the workout clothes I’d had on an hour previously.

The Uber driver asked me if I wanted him to send me the picture. I declined, and quickly got out of the car. 

I opened the Uber app to write a review of the trip and outlined the uncomfortable exchange, giving it a 1-star review (Uber requires that all reviews include a star-review). I said it was possible that the driver had just taken a picture of the street, and noticed that I looked like someone he captured in the image. But there was no way it wasn’t weird. 

Uber responded that day: 

I'm so sorry to hear about this uncomfortable situation. I can only imagine how this made you feel. I have turned this information over to our driver operations team. They will deal with [the driver] immediately. It is never ok for a rider to feel uneasy during a ride and we will do everything we can to ensure this type of experience does not happen again.

I know money can't solve everything, but I added $20 in Uber credit to your account to help make up for any discomfort you may have felt on this ride. 

I left it at that. 

Then, a few days later, an email was forwarded to me from Sarah Lacy, a tech journalist who’d written about me previously. She had received it from the Uber driver. "I need your help to get my job back. (don't judge too quickly)" [sic], it was titled. He explained that he had been a driver for 20 years, and that what had happened between him and "jogger lady" was "innocent coincidence Misunderstanding" [sic]. He wrote that Uber had immediately fired him. He explained that he struggled to make ends meet, and that he tried to hire an attorney but it was too expensive. He complained that my review must have made it seem "like I'm a bad guy or something." 

The driver included in the email an attachment of the picture he took of me, and a copy of the text message he received from Uber firing him. 

UBER MSG. Your account has been deactivated due to complaints about your service. Please return the iPhone to our office between 10 - 2pm Mon-Fri.

The driver then sent the same email to me, at my professional email address, and to my employer.

I had previously been under the impression that the only personal information Uber provided to drivers about riders was a first name, so I was a bit confused as to how this driver had enough information about me to find out my employer. I reached out to Uber for clarification. 

When Uber got back to me, they assured me that they were not at fault. The privacy and safety of customers, they said, was a priority. I was told that under no circumstance would an Uber driver be given the full name of an Uber customer—particularly not one that had just gotten him fired. Uber told me the driver must have just recognized me. Uber's decision to fire the driver so quickly was due to the fact that this was not the first time there had been complaints about him, they told me. 

An Uber representative contacted the driver, and then sent him an email recapping what they discussed, and bcc'd me.

This email is a follow to our phone discussion.

1. You agreed to cease all communication with the rider and the rider's employer.

2. You acknowledge that it showed extremely poor judgment and taste to show the rider a picture you took of her.

3. You informed me that it was your legal aid who recognized the rider and shared with you her identity, not an employee of Uber.

I still didn't buy Uber's explanation for how the driver learned my identity. I figured someone within the company screwed up and told him—but I let it go. I continued to use Uber. 

Then, last week, five months after the first incident, a friend contacted me. Someone had messaged her on Facebook, telling her that a few days prior, they had been my Uber driver, and "is she single lol" [sic]. Somehow, the driver had enough information to find me via Facebook, look up my Facebook friends, and message one of them.

So I asked Uber if their policy had changed to allow drivers to see the full names of riders.

Oops.

Their policy, a representative for Uber New York (the same rep I’d spoken to last fall) told me, never included anything about drivers not seeing the full names of passengers. When he and I had spoken a few months ago, and he'd assured me otherwise, he was wrong. 

Reached for comment from The Daily Beast, Nairi Hourdajian, a spokeswoman for Uber, said, “The New York City and Limousine commission, along with the vast majority of jurisdictions across the country, do require first and last names on what is commonly called a waybill or trip record. It’s intended to prevent gypsy cabbing in the taxi and livery industry… So Uber does provide trip sheets to drivers so that they can comply with those regulations that exist in most cities.” The full name of the passenger, Hourdajian told The Daily Beast, can be accessed from within the Uber app by the driver.

Hourdajian said she couldn’t say for sure why another representative for Uber told me the exact opposite just a few months earlier.

***

Based in San Francisco, Uber was founded as UberCab in March 2009 by Garrett Camp, one of the cofounders of StumbleUpon, an Internet discovery site, and Travis Kalanick, one of the cofounders of Red Swoosh, a file sharing company. Uber launched its mobile app in 2010, and expanded from San Francisco to more and more cities. Today, it operates in 34 different countries, including Japan, France, and Australia. Uber is valued at $3.5 billion, according to The Fiscal Times.

This week, Republican Senator Marco Rubio appeared at Uber's offices in D.C., championing Uber's success because "regulation should never be a weapon used by connected and established industry to crowd out innovation and competition, and this is a real-world example." 

“[The Uber driver] turned the iPad to face me. To my surprise, I saw a full-length, close-up picture of me.”

Existing laws have prevented Uber from operating in Las Vegas, where the minimum time for a ride in a private car is one hour and in Miami, where a reservation for a limousine is required to be made an hour in advance, with a minimum fare of $80.

The company has not been without its fair share of PR disasters concerning the privacy and safety of its customers. 

In March 2013, a 20-year-old passenger in D.C. accused an Uber driver of rape. In April, prosecutors dropped the investigation

In November 2013, a San Francisco man alleged that he was physically and verbally abused by an Uber driver. 

In January 2014, a driver hit and killed a six year old girl. The driver, Uber said, was not working for Uber at the time of the incident, sparking something of a debate about what "working for Uber" really means. Being "on the clock," various Uber drivers have explained to me, means that they are logged on to the app. If they are not logged on to the app, they are not, technically, "working for" Uber at that moment, even if they are in their vehicles and driving around. Uber received blowback for not taking responsibility for the accident. 

Just last week, a Chicago woman filed a lawsuit against Uber Technologies Inc., claiming in a that an Uber driver "repeatedly fondled" her "legs, groin area and breasts."

***

If Uber's function was to take people in private vehicles from point A to point B, it would be easier to argue that the safety and privacy of customers should be enough of a priority to make sure that the whole company is at least aware of what the policies are. But that's not what Uber's function is. Uber's function is to arrange for customers to be taken in private vehicles from point A to point B. 

Uber is not a car company, but a technology company. They do not own vehicles, but software. Thus, they operate in a gray area where they claim they should not be subject to the same regulations as traditional private transportation services. 

Of course, harassment happens in taxis just as it does in ridesharing vehicles. When a colleague of mine tweeted “it’s shocking how many young women i know who have been harassed by uber drivers” [sic], responses included, “more or less than by cab drivers? i’ve gotten all sorts of shit from cabbies.” [sic] and, “I have never once experienced inappropriate behavior from an Uber driver. Have been made to feel unsafe in cabs many times.”

But if you have a complaint about a taxi driver, you can call a phone number. It’s posted right there in the taxi along with the driver’s full name and ID number. And here in New York, the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission makes all of its policies and driver requirements easily accessible via its website. It took about 60 seconds to track down everything a driver must pass to legally drive a NYC taxi, including a drug test, fingerprinting and a criminal background check, a defensive driving course, and a sex trafficking awareness course.

Who's Driving You is a public safety initiative that monitors transportation services like Uber and Lyft (a company whose drivers have also reportedly faced their share of harassment accusations). Dave Sutton, Who’s Driving You’s spokesman, told The Daily Beast, "Ride-share services are chock-full of dangers, especially gaps in insurance and poorly-conducted third-party background checks.”  

Last March, The New Yorker reported that at SXSW Uber hired 50 drivers to give festival attendees free rides. Uber recruited the drivers off Craigslist, gave them a background check and 45 minute orientation. “Twenty minutes of it was just filling out forms,” one driver told the publication.

Sutton further stated, "With Uber, they don't have a physical location or phone number, so when people have problems, they go on social media, and the issues don't get addressed, and it's infuriating." 

Uber has a form on their website where you can request help. The Daily Beast requested privacy and security policies via the form. More than 24 hours later, the request remained unanswered. 

***

Many young women—like myself—were initially drawn to Uber because it seemed like a good way to stay safe. According to a 2000 poll by the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, 87% of women reported being harassed on the street. Why go looking for a cab in the middle of the night, putting yourself in danger, when you can call a private car to come to your exact location? 

But too many female Uber customers face harassment and unwanted advancements or comments from drivers. After I tweeted asking others to share their stories, Tamara Henrickson emailed me to tell me that last weekend, she called an Uber after spending the day at a beer festival in Charlotte with her boyfriend. "I was nervous all day about riding alone at night, but after a long day of drinking my comfort level was up," she told me. "My boyfriend walked me to the car and we said our goodbyes." 

The Uber driver, she said, "was very nice to begin with, but then he got a little flirty. I kept bringing up my boyfriend trying to let him know nothing was going to happen."

Then, at the end of her ride, Hendrickson said, "He brought up rating each other. Somehow he said he needed my number to be able to rate me as a rider. I didn't think much of it. A while later after being home, he texted me that it was nice to meet me." 

The Daily Beast received an email from a woman who asked to remain anonymous, explaining that she took a short trip on a very cold night using Uber. "You're just spoiled and lazy," the driver told her. She gave him a 1-star rating, but panicked upon realizing that the driver—who knew where she lived—might know that she was the reason he was fired.

“The driver would obviously put two-and-two together and realize I was the one who gave him a one-star rating,” she wrote. “Then I realized that he knew my first name [which is uniquely spelled] … Maybe he had my real phone number, too. Worse yet, the driver knew where I lived, since he had picked up at my home.”

She added, "In this era of convenience and on-demand service, we make some big privacy trade-offs." 

Hourdajian said Uber “use[s] state-of-the-art anonymization technology, meaning the driver doesn’t ever have a rider’s true phone number, and vice versa.” But just a few days ago, another representative from Uber in New York told me that drivers can see the riders' phone numbers if they text passengers. Asked specifically about the other representative's claim that drivers in fact can see passengers' phone numbers via text message, Hourdajian told The Daily Beast that "SMS functions exactly like calling, in that rider/driver can reach each other via phone call or SMS during a trip (anonymized of course). But not after a trip." 

For probably more than half of my Uber trips, I am texted by the driver (sometimes instead of being called, sometimes in addition to being called).

Women use private car services to stay safe. They shouldn’t have to worry about anything but buckling up and getting safely to their destination once they’re in the car. For Uber, the question remains: will young women continue to use a service that provides strangers with their full name and, possibly, their phone number?