On Tuesday, ride-calling service Uber released its first ever transparency report about government requests it's received for user information. It contained a shocking number: Over a six month period, the U.S. government has requested information about 12 million Uber riders and drivers.
But before you start freaking out about the government monitoring your every Uber ride, know that the vast majority of those requests came from regulatory agencies that are more interested in Uber's rapid growth than where its riders are actually going. Uber specifically name-checks the California Public Utilities Commission and the New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits as two of the government bodies that have requested information about Uber trips.
Uber said it has provided information about 11,644,000 riders, and 583,000 drivers to federal, state, and local regulatory agencies in the United States. A state-by-state breakdown revealed that California, Chicago and New York were responsible for the majority of those requests: California: 5.4 million riders and 299,000 drivers. Chicago: 1.7 million riders and 95,000 drivers. NYC: at least 2.8 million riders and 37,000 drivers.
The report only covers the U.S., though the company says it "hopes to" release information about requests elsewhere. Law enforcement has only asked Uber for information about 408 riders and 205 drivers, probably in cases like this.
In general the tone of the report is combative but vague on particulars. The FAQ section begins like this:
How is this report different from other transparency reports?
Our transparency report is the first report addressing regulated transportation services and includes information about reporting requirements for regulatory agencies. It provides a comprehensive overview of how many times government agencies in the U.S. at the federal, state and local levels have asked for information about our business or riders and drivers.
That's maybe a little more blustery than is earned, since Uber is in a slightly different business than say Google, which was the first technology company to release a transparency report in 2009, or Twitter, or Facebook, or Microsoft, or any of the other large tech companies that produce transparency reports. Uber's in the transportation business (or, pardon me, the 'technology platform that ~enables~ transport' business), which tends to be subject to more regulation—something that Uber chafes at, though, and so it's the centerpiece of this report.
The report includes information on data requests Uber's received, information on when they've managed to push back, and information on when there's been nothing there. On top of that, there's a general overview of what sort of information regulatory agencies request, which Uber says can include "information about trips, trip requests, pickup and dropoff areas, fares, vehicles, and drivers in their jurisdictions for a given time period" as well as "an electronic trip receipt with a trip route."
However, the report doesn't say anything about how often those different types of data have been requested or how often Uber's provided them in response to the request.
Uber also provides a little pop-up on the report website that intimates that this information would somehow be used to track individual riders:
They don't suggest what public records would be used to do this, or by whom, but it's certainly an ominous suggestion from a company that has repeatedly ignored safety complaints in its own system and faced a serious privacy breach. Especially given how little information they're providing to back up the suggestion.
In general the report is almost a little boring without further information. Good on Uber for releasing one, but it feels more like a publicity stunt in the company's ongoing anti-regulatory stance than anything particularly significant.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org