If Uber’s data-sharing with the government worries you, that’s precisely the point

Nothing to see here.
Nothing to see here.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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Uber is out with its first-ever transparency report on data it provides to US government agencies, and the release has a shocking headliner. From July 2015 to December, US state and city regulators required Uber to hand over data that “affected” 11.6 million riders and 583,000 drivers.

By voluntarily releasing the report, Uber says it is “following in the footsteps” of companies like Facebook and Apple that have done similarly. But here it’s helpful to clarify what Uber means by “affected.” Whatever you might infer from that term, regulators are not asking Uber to hand over the names or other personal identifiers of riders. Rather, most of them are collecting anonymized data on trips, often without a stated reason.

There can be real privacy concerns over this. In New York City, for example, the taxi commission periodically releases a summary of the data it collects, and the details could be obtained through a public records request. In theory, an enterprising individual could cross-reference that information against addresses to figure out who’s requesting an Uber and when. In cities where Uber is required to provide end-to-end trip data, you could hypothetically track a person’s travel.

That said, there are also business concerns for Uber—some of the data it’s giving up is proprietary. It’s one reason why Uber fought New York City’s reporting requirements so hard in 2014. (“I think there is a difference between having a binder of information you would come by once a week and check, or me delivering you a CSV file that is mined for things like our growth, which we would want to keep secret,” Josh Mohrer, Uber’s general manager for New York, told city officials at the time.)

Uber hasn’t had much luck battling regulatory requirements on such terms. But it has been extremely successful at riling riders up to support its causes—especially when ride-hailing laws are on the table. And that seems to be the real goal of this transparency report, which was presented just vaguely enough to make riders and drivers worried about what information the government might be collecting.

“We hope our Transparency Report will lead to a public debate about the types and amounts of information regulated services should be required to provide to their regulators, and under what circumstances,” Uber writes in a blog post accompanying the report.

If Uber can draw riders and drivers into the conversation, maybe they’ll demand the changes in regulatory reporting requirements that the company until now has failed to secure.