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Editorials

New Uber Feature Promises Physical Safety, Data Risks

Soldiers Field Road

A partnership between Uber and emergency response-focused startup RapidSOS has led to the recent implementation of a “911 Assistance” feature on the popular ride-sharing app. This feature, included in the app’s new Safety Toolkit, enables users in Cambridge to contact police without exiting the app, giving emergency responders earlier warning in the event of any security issues.

We welcome this feature to make ride-sharing more secure for Cambridge residents and college students across the city, and we hope that it will serve as a deterrent for potential safety issues raised while using the app. The ability to establish a direct line of communication with Cambridge authorities during the course of an Uber ride is a vital move in the direction of greater safety. Both deterrence of crime and increased response time to a safety concern will make Cambridge a safer place.

We have previously encouraged the improvement of safety and the prioritization of user protection in ride-sharing applications, and we are heartened that Uber has incorporated such measures into its interface. This decision demonstrates the company’s commitment to improve user security.

While the “911 Assistance” feature represents solid progress on ensuring security for Uber riders, the infrastructure surrounding data privacy associated with the feature must be a top priority for its creators. The feature allows riders to share information such as location and trip details within the app, and such information may be exposed to potentially damaging leaks. Such a security breach would not be unprecedented, as Uber recently had to pay a $148 million settlement in the aftermath of a data breach that exposed the information of 57 million of its drivers and riders.

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In that case, Uber’s approach to the incident — covering up the breach by paying off the hacker, which led to the firing of two employees a year later — was concerning to say the least, and does not bode well for the company’s behavior in the event of future breaches. In order for this feature to be effective, Uber must win riders’ trust enough for them to provide this sensitive data. That requires that they be diligent in working for better security, along with being transparent about and willing to take responsibility for any breaches that may arise.

The physical safety of users must certainly be a priority for Uber, but so should their safety on the web and the privacy of their data. One cannot be sacrificed for the other, and ride sharing companies have the obligation to ensure both realms of safety. Finally, if the implementation of this feature in Cambridge is successful, Uber and other local police departments should expand the feature both to different ride-sharing apps and to other cities so that as many people as possible can enjoy safer rides.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

Correction: Feb. 11, 2019

A previous version of this staff editorial incorrectly stated that the "911 Assistance" feature automatically sends medical or emergency contact information to the emergency responders. In fact, only location and trip details are sent to authorities upon deployment of the Uber feature.

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