Smartphone Ride Services Uber and Lyft Earn Unfortunate Attention from Congress


Vaguely unnerving news from last week from The Hill for those who love the convenience and ease and often the price of such smartphone ride-hailing apps as Uber and Lyft:

Raido Kalma--Flickr

The upstart ride-hailing companies earned new ire from two top Democrats on the powerful Senate Commerce Committee over the protections they put in place for customers' data.

In particular, Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Clare McCaskill (D-Mo.) raised concerns about officials' reported ability to easily track users' location without their knowledge or consent — a feature known as "God View" at Uber.

"These reports are disturbing because geolocation data can be used to create intimate profiles of customers, such as where they live, work and socialize," the senators wrote in a just-released letter to Uber head Travis Kalanick. A similar letter was sent to Lyft CEO Logan Green……

In their letters, the senators demanded copies of the companies' documents detailing their data security and privacy protection plans as well as a briefing from top officials about the practices.

They also pointedly raised the specter of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is required to police unfair and deceptive business practices and is under the jurisdiction of the Commerce panel….

"The Commission's cases have cut a wide swath across industries, including social networking sites, mobile handset manufacturers, application developers, rental car companies, retail and drug stores, check cashing companies, and hotel chains," the senators noted, without directly threatening the companies.

I love that "without directly threatening." Government alas has the power of any protection racket to threaten without explicitly threatening, as all businesses understand.

…Last week, [Sen. Al] Franken [D-Minn.] said that he was unsatisfied with Uber's response to a letter that he sent the company. 

I, and most of their clients, am very happy with the service that Lyft (the e-hailer I use) provides, but alas that might not matter at all if Franken's personal dissatisfaction that some American businesses don't properly and swifty respect his authority leads to fresh attempts to legislate or regulate over the fact that, by the very nature of the services, the companies have to know a lot about their customers whereabouts when using the service.

Most of the companies' political battles have been on the local and state level, and I wrote a long feature about those in the November issue of Reason.