Uber must get drivers' fingerprints to ensure safety

Uber must get drivers' fingerprints to ensure safety
© Getty Images

London’s rejection of Uber’s license to operate resurfaces a key question about the company’s model for approving new drivers: Should they undergo thorough, fingerprint-based criminal background checks? 

While this was a primary sticking point between London regulators and Uber, it is reminiscent of Uber’s fierce public battles in U.S. cities to avoid this requirement. As Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi navigates multiple challenges facing his new employer’s future, this matter of public safety should be given top priority.


Just as the online travel booking industry must ensure that its customers are routed to hotels, airlines and cruise ships with good safety records, the ride-sharing economy must do the same. 


Most customers using ridesharing services are not worried about who’s behind the wheel, because the assumption is the company employing the “contractor” has done their due diligence to ensure a safe driver with a clean record.

However, we know that this is not the case, because the background check Uber and other sharing companies conduct are incomplete and easy to circumvent. Without a fingerprint-based background check, convicted felons and people with a long history of issues with the law are entrusted with public safety and on the road looking for their next fare.

Unfortunate stories of assaults on passengers by drivers who would have failed a criminal background check continue to arise. 

In Massachusetts, more than 8,000 drivers were discovered to have passed Uber and Lyft's company background checks despite having everything from drunk and reckless driving to violent crimes and sexual offenses on their records.

Maryland dismissed 2,850 drivers for criminal offenses and driving history in 2015. Both violent criminal history and reckless driving pose serious risks to customers, not to mention everyone else on the road.

Not all background checks are created equal. Many are commercially-based, do not look deeply into one’s past and fail to positively identify the person who is actually submitting the information for the background search.

Name-based background checks present three fundamental problems: First, there is no biometric (i.e. fingerprints) tying the applicant to their check to positively identify a person, increasing the likelihood of fraud.

Second, because names, addresses and birthdays are not unique, the likelihood of false positives (a person linked in error with another’s record) and false negatives (someone getting cleared when they should not) are greatly increased.

Third, because the FBI database is not accessed, there is no true national search performed, which by definition makes these searches incomplete, limited and inaccurate.  

The only way to achieve a complete background check in the U.S. is with a fingerprint and by running a comparison of that print against the FBI’s criminal database.

What makes fingerprint-based background checks the gold standard is the use of fingerprints — a highly-accurate way to confirm someone’s identity compared to a name-based check, and the universality of fingerprints used among state and federal government agencies.

Simply put, this allows for the optimal levels of information-sharing among all relevant agencies — an element that is lacking when fingerprints are not used to verify identities.  

Yet, Uber instead argues that a fingerprint-based background check is too burdensome for its drivers. The reality is that the fingerprint background check screening process is fast and easy for both the employers and job-seekers.

Here’s how the process works: After an applicant gets their fingerprints copied, they are run through the FBI’s database, which includes criminal record information from all 50 states. If a person has a criminal history anywhere in the U.S., it will show up in the background check. 

The municipality or state can then determine whether the offense is disqualifying for the job. For example, sex offenders cannot work in a school, but someone who was arrested for a relatively minor offense, such as driving without a license, can.   

Today, millions of teachers, medical professionals, caregivers to the elderly and sick, stockbrokers, cab drivers, real estate agents, school volunteers and others are required by law to submit to fingerprint background checks. 

Fingerprints are required for people in these occupations because they have regular unmonitored access to vulnerable populations or significant financial assets. Whether it’s the government or the private sector, these employers want as complete a criminal profile as possible on a job applicant to ensure public safety.  

As Uber plots its future under the new leadership of CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and revisits some of its long-standing policies, public safety should not get lost in the discussion. In fact, it should be at the forefront.

Although the company is reinventing the way millions of people hail a ride, fingerprint-based background checks remain the gold standard in identifying would-be drivers who simply shouldn’t be on the road. New leadership at Uber creates a fresh opportunity to re-think the company’s approach to safeguarding its passengers.

Charles R. Carroll is the vice president of enrollment services for MorphoTrust USA, an organization that provides solutions and services to commercial businesses and government agencies that enable trusted transactions — in person or online.