When Uber published on Tuesday (April 12) what it calls its “transparency report”—a compilation of information delivered to law enforcement and regulators last year—it took the opportunity to express its displeasure that it had to deliver all of those data-dumps.
“Regulators will always need some amount of data to be effective, just like law enforcement. But in many cases they send blanket requests without explaining why the information is needed, or how it will be used,” said an Uber blog post. “And while this kind of trip data doesn’t include personal information, it can reveal patterns of behavior—and is more than regulators need to do their jobs. It’s why Uber frequently tries to narrow the scope of these demands, though our efforts are typically rebuffed.”
Uber said it has to provide a lot more information than it’s less-digital counterparts, mostly because it retains that data. If they have it, they (regulators) will come, is the upshot of Uber’s comments.
“Today, requests to digital companies often exceed those for offline companies. For example, a taxi company might have to submit a paper log with the rough pickup and dropoff locations of a trip. But we might be asked to share the precise GPS coordinates of the pickup and dropoff locations, or even the entire path of the trip,” Uber said, adding that the company is hoping for “a public debate about the types and amounts of information regulated services should be required to provide to their regulators, and under what circumstances.”
The report noted that California, for example, made requests impacting 299,000 drivers and 5.419 million riders while Chicago’s requests impacted 95,000 drivers and 1.697 million riders. Airports get into the act, too, with San Francisco’s airport inquiries impacting 44,000 drivers and 713,000 riders.
The report cited 415 government requests for information plus 267 subpoenas, 90 search warrants, 30 emergency requests and 28 court orders.
Uber also raised privacy questions, pointing out that data that is sent to governments and law enforcement agencies doesn’t necessarily go a lot farther.
“We have attempted to limit agencies from disclosing commercially or personally sensitive information. But agencies may disregard our requests and complaints, collecting and exposing far more data than necessary to fulfill their obligations,” the report said. “For instance, this data can be exposed when regulatory agencies receive freedom of information requests and respond by producing data we shared with them. In addition, agencies occasionally inadvertently disclose the confidential information in their possession.”
Uber makes a fair point about less-digital taxi services being asked for less data, but it may simply be that they house less data. In other words, it may not be a matter of fairness or consistency. I’d wager that regulators would demand the same data from taxis if they thought they could get it.
Like any corporate regulatory listings, Uber certainly has to provide a lot of information. But given that it’s stated goal is to encourage public debate about how much information should be collected, the Uber report doesn’t even try and directly make the argument that these agencies are seeking information that they don’t need to do their jobs. The report opted to not point to any specific data as an example of overzealous regulatory requests.
Without offering such specifics, it’s call for fewer regulatory requests falls flat. There is an excellent argument to make here that too much data is being demanded. For whatever reason, Uber said they were going to make such an argument—but never ended up doing so.