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Uber to use facial recognition for drivers amid safety concerns

Uber to use facial recognition for drivers amid safety concerns
© Greg Nash

Uber is turning to facial recognition in what it says is an attempt to reduce fraud and boost rider safety.

Drivers will now be asked to take a photo of themselves "periodically" before starting a session where they accept rides. That photo will be matched against a picture Uber has on file.

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The driver’s account will be “temporarily blocked” if the two imagines don’t match, according to the company. The system will start rolling out Friday.

“This prevents fraud and protects drivers’ accounts from being compromised,” said Uber Chief Safety Officer Joe Sullivan in a blog post. “It also protects riders by building another layer of accountability into the app to ensure the right person is behind the wheel.”

Uber is drawing on a Microsoft product called Cognitive Services to check the photos. A version of the feature that rolled out in China earlier this year was built with a local startup.

Sullivan said that during Uber's tests of the feature, "the majority of mismatches were due to unclear profile photos" and that the vast majority of drivers ultimately were cleared.

Uber in the last year has been keeping closer tabs on drivers amid concerns about safety and security. It announced in January that it would use drivers’ smartphones to track whether they were driving responsibly.

It also defended its background check system — which does not use fingerprinting — as sufficient after police identified the man who committed a string of shootings in Kalamazoo, Mich., in February as an Uber driver.

Facial recognition is an increasingly popular choice among businesses for a variety of safety and advertising applications, but it has also raised privacy questions.

A Department of Commerce working group composed of industry representatives and privacy advocates was tasked with coming up with voluntary privacy guidelines for businesses using facial recognition. But the advocates walked out of the talks last year and decried the guidelines that businesses ultimately produced.

However, Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology, said that generally "face verification is less problematic than other uses of the technology — such as when face recognition is used to identify an unknown person."

“Why? You're not trying to identify someone who doesn't want to be identified — or who doesn't know he's being identified,” he added.

"This doesn't mean Uber doesn't have to be careful. Biometrics are sensitive, and they should be held securely and used only for the reasons they were collected. They should also only be collected with a person's permission."

An Uber spokesperson said all the data and photos associated with the feature will be encrypted while they are sent between a driver's phone, Uber and Microsoft. The spokesperson said that the company will save the photos in line with local laws so that they can be referenced if need be.

- Updated at 2:13 p.m.