Uber drivers are filming their riders and sharing the tapes online

The driver isn’t the only one watching.
The driver isn’t the only one watching.
Image: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
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Late last year, Benjamin Golden, a former executive at Taco Bell, was sentenced to 60 days in jail for attacking an Uber driver. The incident took place at California’s Newport Beach in October 2015 and was captured in its entirety on driver Edward Caban’s dashboard camera. In the video, Caban pulls over and tells Golden, “I’m kicking you out man; you’re too drunk to give me directions.” After a brief protest, Golden opens his door as though to leave, then lunges forward and strikes Caban repeatedly on the side of the head. “You piece of shit!” he yells, grabbing Caban’s hair and slamming his face toward the steering wheel.

Over the last few years several other dash-cam recordings by Uber drivers have blown up online. There was the driver who filmed a woman on her phone before a near head-on collision in Pittsburgh; the driver whose dash cam rolled as a passenger screamed hysterically and threatened to falsely accuse him of rape from the back seat in New York City; and the driver who got into a heated argument with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick over reductions in fares. Other drivers post compilations of their encounters on YouTube. One of those videos, “I Drive For Uber- Here Are Some of My Crazy Adventures,” has nearly 1 million views.

Most Uber riders probably don’t expect to find themselves starring in widely distributed video clips. But dash cams have become a popular accessory in the ride-hailing business, where drivers work as independent contractors and have come to expect little if any support from the companies. Drivers rely on dash-cam footage to guard against bad reviews or false accusations from passengers, which can get them kicked off platforms like Uber and Lyft. They also use these recordings to ensure they get paid properly if something changes mid-trip, like a rider requesting an extra stop.

Some drivers go further, sharing their videos on YouTube, Facebook, or in other online chat forums. It’s the sharing economy’s version of water cooler talk, with drivers trading stories about their most nightmarish trips. “A male and two females entered my car and I started the ride. After 50 yards I noticed the girls in the back seat were holding plastic cups with alcohol!” one driver posted on uberpeople.net, a popular online forum, in late April. “I told them that’s illegal and kicked them out. The male got a little angry but ALL was recorded just in case he claims something different.”

It’s understandable why drivers feel like they need an insurance clause, but customers might still be unsettled to learn that their Uber or Lyft ride isn’t as private as it seems. ”There’s all these videos of people behaving badly in someone’s car that are just exploding around the internet,” said Alex Rosenblat, a researcher at Data & Society who recently wrote about dash-cam use among ride-hailing drivers.

Dash-cam companies have noted the new demand for their products. “It’s become a no-brainer,” said Paulina Soria, a spokeswoman for dash-cam maker Papago. The company used to get two inquiries a month from ride-hailing drivers and now receives one per week. “We have definitely seen an increase in sales and we can link it specifically to those types of drivers,” she said. Nextbase, a European manufacturer of dash-cams, said it has seen a “very large increase in sales” over the last two years, especially for a dash-cam model it developed specifically for professional drivers. “It’s rare in Europe now if you see a taxi or livery vehicle without one,” said Nextbase director Richard Browning. The company plans to expand to the US later this year.

Drivers who record sound with their videos risk violating eavesdropping laws, which vary by state. On the help section of its website, Uber says drivers may “install and use video cameras to record riders for purposes of safety.” The company encourages drivers to check local regulations on using and disclosing their recording equipment. Uber said it doesn’t know how many drivers use dash cams in their vehicles.

California, for example, has two-party consent, meaning a private conversation can only be recorded with the consent of all parties. Other states only restrict audio recording where there’s a “reasonable expectation” of privacy. “The back of a car *probably* doesn’t qualify, because the driver could easily overhear any conversation taking place,” Mason Kortz, an instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, told Quartz in an email. But, he added, “if audio recording would unnerve some riders, who is the court to say that riders are ‘unreasonable’ to feel that way?”

In New York City, where yellow cabs are ubiquitous and strictly regulated, taxi drivers that use dash cams are required to notify riders with a sign saying, “This vehicle is equipped with camera security. YOU WILL BE PHOTOGRAPHED.” Similar regulations apply to all for-hire vehicles, which in the city includes ride-hailing drivers.

Many drivers are aware of these potential complications. Questions about the legality of using a dash-cam—and in particular recording audio—pop up often in online forums, and drivers tend to encourage each other to research the laws in their specific states. A few have put up signs in their cars to let passengers know a recording is taking place. “Had to make a sign for my dash cam so… I made this lil beauty,” a driver wrote on uberpeople.net in late April, before posting a photo of his handiwork. “RECORDING IN PROGRESS,” the sign read, in large capital lettering. “TIPS APPRECIATED.”

This story was updated to include additional information from Uber.