A former Uber driver in the U.K. is leading a crusade to obtain driving data from the ride-hailing company, in a foretaste of coming battles between workers and platforms over access to highly valuable digital information.
Uber collects vast amounts of data on its users and drivers, everything from routes and performance ratings to what languages drivers speak — data that the company uses to optimize its services.
The data could also be of great value for Uber’s drivers, as it would enable them to calculate their hourly earnings as well as understand how they are assigned their jobs. Under the GDPR, European data subjects are entitled to request any data that a company holds on them.
But when former Uber driver James Farrar requested the data that Uber had collected about him, he was given only a limited dataset with GPS data, pick-up and drop-off points, and fare details. The full datasets he was after, which would include precise log-on and log-off times, all location data, individual ratings and reviews, were not supplied, nor was any information about how Uber’s driver profiles affect the work they are assigned.
Together with three other drivers, Farrar sent Uber a letter in March demanding that it comply with their data requests and warning Uber that it may have breached data protection laws, prompting the ride-hailing company to fork over more data. In an attempt to ramp up pressure on the company, Farrar has since rallied more than 100 other drivers to seek their data via his non-profit organization Worker Info Exchange.
But not everything the drivers were seeking was delivered, and now they are reviewing Uber’s response with his lawyer, Ravi Naik, who has experience handling high-profile data protection cases against Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.
“That is the future of data rights,” said Farrar. “How did the machine profile me? How did it assess my performance?”
Farrar’s initiative comes as the European Commission is kickstarting a debate about access to data.
As digital juggernauts such as Uber, Facebook and Amazon amass huge troves of data on customers and partners, the idea is to force such firms to open access to their data to users as well as researchers and entrepreneurs. Greater access could foster innovation, boost entrepreneurship, and even the playing field between platforms and users, the thinking goes.
In the Commission’s vision for a “common European data space,” data would flow freely between different sectors, and could be used to “contribute to the growth of the European economy, the development of artificial intelligence or the fight against societal challenges.” (The Finnish presidency is currently drafting its own principles for the European data economy, which would set a framework for data access.)
But private companies like Uber are reluctant to hand over their data, in fear of endangering their intellectual property and revealing the inner workings of their algorithms to competitors.
Uber says that after Farrar’s letter in March, the company provided the drivers with millions of lines of data, but that that some of the requested datasets do not exist.
“Under GDPR we are not required to create databases in order to provide data,” says Melanie Ensign, a spokeswoman. The company also argues that it already shares sufficient details about its algorithm on a public website.
Another bone of contention is that banned drivers currently have no way to appeal their deactivation; ratings and reviews would help them with that.
Despite the repeated requests, Uber has not given drivers information on profile and performance data, and how they are processed.
Farrar is not backing down. He points to the success of the city of New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission in forcing Uber to hand over trip data earlier this year as inspiration. This allowed the city to set a minimum wage for ride-hailing workers and a cap on taxi licenses.
He has a track record of going up against Uber, and winning. In 2016, Farrar and another driver, Yaseen Aslam, filed and won a workers’ rights claim in the U.K., demanding paid holidays and a minimum wage. Uber has appealed that decision, and the case is headed to the Supreme Court next year.
The company maintains that its drivers are independent entrepreneurs. But if the datasets that Farrar and others have requested reveal that Uber uses data to manage drivers through its algorithm, that might be a harder sell.
“For everyone, that is the battleground of the future,” Farrar said.