Driver X's story: spending months searching for the truth about his suspension and being lost in the opacity of the decision-making process
This is a real life testimony of a UK private hire driver who was employed by Uber. It explores the issues that gig economy workers face as a result of algorithmic management and surveillance utilised by their employers.
Please note the views expressed in the video are the interviewee's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of PI.
Driver X (he wishes to remain anonymous) has been working for Uber for five years. After working for Uber for two and half years, he suddenly received a message telling him that his account had been temporarily suspended and asking him not to call Uber while the investigation was pending. He was baffled, as he had an excellent record and rating, with plenty of positive feedback.
He decided to call Uber but the people he spoke to had no idea about his investigation or what it was about, as it was dealt with by the senior support team and Driver X claims that he could not reach them. Driver X initially reassured himself, thinking his account would be reinstated the next day. But days and weeks passed, and his account had yet to be reinstated. This ultimately meant that he was not receiving any work from Uber or income. After six or seven weeks, Driver X’s account was reinstated. Those weeks proved to be a difficult time for Driver X both financially and emotionally. He experienced a lot of stress and anxiety throughout. Therefore, when his account was reinstated, he still wanted to understand what happened. Yet, Uber did not provide any reason or explanation for the suspension.
It was only two years after this incident, when Driver X’s private hire licence needed to be renewed, that he received an indication from Transport for London (TfL) regarding the possible reason for his deactivation. In London, where Driver X works, Transport for London (TfL), is the local government body in charge of regulating transport. TfL also provides private hire drivers a renewable license for them to be allowed to work. TfL revealed that they had concerns about renewing his license, as he had been previously alleged to be involved in drug-related offences.
Driver X was very shocked as he knew nothing about this allegation, but he immediately suspected that this must have been why his account had been suspended two years earlier. TfL said they needed clarification about this issue, otherwise Driver X would lose his licence. Driver X went to the police station to try and understand what had happened but the police officer he met there said there was absolutely nothing about him: no criminal record, nor any information on their database about any investigations. The police officer advised him to file a Freedom of Information request to TfL. In the meantime, Driver X tried everything he could to get some help: Citizen Advice, ombudsman, Legal Aid but no one seemed able to help. “I was running around like a headless chicken trying to prove a lie” he recalls.
When Driver X received a response from TfL, it was revealed that Driver X had not been investigated. Despite this, Uber still argued he had been suspended due to a request from the police. The police told him that they suspected it was a mistake from Uber and that he should inform TfL. TfL eventually gave him his licence, but Driver X still wanted to understand what had happened. He went on to file a data subject access to TfL and discovered that Uber was claiming that his details were sought in the context of a criminal investigation, which was later on confirmed as having nothing to do with him.
For Driver X it is the arbitrariness and the lack of transparency that defines algorithmic management: “In a normal job you get a notice when you are suspended. You are given a reason why you have been suspended,” he says. He did not receive any of this information from Uber either before, or right after his suspension.
Stories such as that of Driver X are concerning because they appear to demonstrate that as gig economy platforms such as Uber are increasingly becoming an attractive source of intelligence for police and security services.
Worker Info Exchange is concerned about this because whilst such relationships have significant importance for community level crime control, it seems little regard has been paid to the risk to civil liberties of relatively easy access to rich personal data of drivers and passengers as collected and stored by platforms such as Uber, Bolt and Ola Cabs. PI has also been concerned about the way law enforcement and governmental agencies seek to expand their surveillance capabilities and use the services of private technology companies – through public-private partnerships (‘PPPs’). The privatisation of public responsibilities can be deeply problematic if deployed without the safeguards required to ensure human rights are not quietly abused. This is particularly true when the systems deployed are used for surveillance and mass processing of personal data. Private companies have been known to play with the limits of what can legally and ethically be done with individuals’ identities and data, without the same level of accountability required of public authorities – a significant affront to fundamental rights when used to deliver a public service. As a result, we’ve developed a series of safeguards that we recommend for implementation by public authorities and companies who intend to enter into such partnerships.
We have reached out to Uber for comment in relation to the interviews that we have conducted. Uber emphasised that it is always the specialist teams of human reviewers who make final decisions about drivers' accounts. In addition Uber stated that drivers have the right to contact Ubers Data Protection Officer for any issue they may have with the processing of their personal data. They can do so via the published contact details.
You can read the full response from Uber here.
This research is a result of a collaboration between Privacy International, Worker Info Exchange and App Drivers and Couriers Union.