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Why it’s so difficult for Uber to crack down on driver impersonators

Transport for London officials say they “cannot be confident that similar issues won’t happen again in [the] future.”

Why it’s so difficult for Uber to crack down on driver impersonators
[Photo: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images; mooltfilm/iStock]

Officials in London said on Monday they won’t renew Uber’s license to operate in the city, citing a “pattern of failures,” such as unauthorized drivers taking the wheel in at least 14,000 trips. Driver impersonation is a recurring problem for the company around the world, one that has proven difficult to solve.

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The problem came from a “change to Uber’s systems” that allowed people to upload their own photos to authorized drivers’ accounts, Transport for London officials said, effectively letting them bypass Uber’s checks to make sure the right person is driving the vehicle and making it impossible for passengers to see that anything was amiss. That meant the trips weren’t covered by insurance and some drivers weren’t licensed at all, with at least one having previously had a license revoked by the transport agency, according to officials.

Uber has vowed to appeal, calling the decision “extraordinary and wrong,” and is allowed to continue operating during that process.

“Over the last two months, we have audited every driver in London and further strengthened our processes,” said Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional general manager for Northern and Eastern Europe, in a statement shared with Fast Company. “We have robust systems and checks in place to confirm the identity of drivers and will soon be introducing a new facial matching process, which we believe is a first in London taxi and private hire.”

Transport for London officials say the problem took place in late 2018 and early 2019, and while one incident of driver impersonation was reported only three weeks ago, the actual ride took place in the early part of this year. Still, the agency remains concerned that Uber’s systems might allow similar problems in the future.

“While we recognize Uber has made improvements, it is unacceptable that Uber has allowed passengers to get into minicabs with drivers who are potentially unlicensed and uninsured,” said Helen Chapman, director of licensing, regulation, and charging at Transport for London, in a statement. “It is clearly concerning that these issues arose, but it is also concerning that we cannot be confident that similar issues won’t happen again in [the] future.”

An Uber spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for more detail about the “new facial matching process” described in Heywood’s statement.

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Uber has been working for years to combat multiple issues around driver impersonation. One problem involves unauthorized people simply claiming to be Uber drivers picking up distracted or inebriated passengers, then robbing or assaulted them. Uber has combatted that by reminding passengers to verify driver’s license plates and confirm drivers’ names when getting picked up. The company is also rolling out an optional feature where drivers would need to enter a PIN number displayed in the passenger’s app to start a ride, which would ensure the right drivers and passengers are matched, Fortune reported in September.

But those measures wouldn’t protect against an unauthorized person using a friend or relative’s account to drive for Uber, unless passengers carefully compared driver photos against faces. For years, Uber has announced additional steps to prevent people from driving under other people’s names, whether with authorized drivers’ consent or through compromised accounts, but the problem has seemingly continued to pop up around the world. In 2016, the company announced that it had begun requiring drivers to periodically take selfies, which would be algorithmically compared with their photos on file to verify they were the right driver. (Uber rival Lyft, which didn’t respond to an inquiry from Fast Company, uses similar measures.)

The selfie system came under recent scrutiny after an unauthorized Uber driver in Melbourne, Australia, was convicted in September of raping a passenger after using a photo of an authorized driver, rather than a selfie, to confirm his identity. In a statement reported by Business Insider Australia at the time, Uber denied that vulnerability was still an issue, with a spokesperson saying the company had added technology and human reviews to detect people using a photo in lieu of a selfie. The company also told Fortune it is rolling out a “liveness detection tool” that would require drivers make facial movements like blinking or smiling to verify their selfies aren’t just photos of photos.

Uber’s face recognition separately drew concern last year from some transgender drivers, who said the automated system wasn’t able to recognize their faces as their appearances changed over time. In general, commercial facial recognition systems have faced criticism in recent years over their limited ability to recognize people from racial and gender minorities.

Even a more accurate selfie-based system alone, though, seemingly wouldn’t have stopped the problem reported in London, where unauthorized drivers were allegedly able to substitute their own photos for the ones on file, since any selfies would match the uploaded photo of the illicit driver. Both Uber and Transport for London say Uber has taken steps to address that issue, although Transport for London officials still expressed concern that such a problem could arise again in declining to renew Uber’s license.

“If they choose to appeal, Uber will have the opportunity to publicly demonstrate to a magistrate whether it has put in place sufficient measures to ensure potential safety risks to passengers are eliminated,” Chapman said in her statement.

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London Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a statement that he supported Transport for London’s decision on Uber’s license. Officials in London, where operators of the city’s celebrated but costly black cabs study London geography and other facts for years to pass a notoriously difficult licensing exam, had previously sought to ban Uber in 2017, citing, among other things, “a lack of corporate responsibility” and Uber’s “approach to reporting serious criminal offenses.” Last year, after hearing of changes at Uber, a judge allowed the company to obtain a new London license.

Safety issues have at times hampered Uber’s legal authority to operate in other cities as well. Uber and Lyft both departed the Austin market in 2016, after city officials refused to back down from a requirement they fingerprint their drivers for background checks, which the companies called costly and unnecessary. Ultimately, Texas state legislators shifted ride-hailing regulation to the state level, where the fingerprint requirement was dropped. A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which now governs ride-hailing services, said the department hasn’t encountered issues with unauthorized drivers on Uber accounts.

“To date, we have not received any complaints regarding unauthorized drivers using Uber or other TNC accounts, nor has the issue come up with any of our staff,” writes communication specialist Jeff Copas in an email to Fast Company. “We would certainly investigate any complaint we received along these lines.”

Other cities have taken their own approaches to ensuring only authorized drivers are behind the wheel of Uber vehicles. In New York City, the Taxi and Limousine Commission logs individual trips and has field agents who can conduct spot checks to make sure only properly licensed people and cars are on the road.

“We’re confident that the checks and balances New York City has help ensure passengers are serviced by vetted and licensed drivers that are a requirement for companies like Uber to continue operating here,” acting TLC Commissioner Bill Heinzen said in a statement shared with Fast Company on Monday.

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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