Uber drivers in Europe and the U.S. are fighting for access to their personal data. Whoever wins the lawsuit could get to reframe the terms of the gig economy.
Over two years of driving for Uber, James Farrar logged thousands of miles on the app. Many weeks, heâd work more than 80 hours behind the wheel of his Ford Mondeo, crisscrossing the streets of London deep into the night. Along with passengers, Farrar was collecting data.
During his time in the car, Uberâs app recorded where he went, how long he stayed, how much money he made, and how many stars he was given by his passengers. It noted how many rides he accepted and how many he cancelled, mapped where trips started and ended, and how long it took him to wind through traffic to get there as he followed the algorithmic cues nudging him around the city.
Being an Uber driver, Farrar found, did not agree with him: â[L]ife behind the wheel,â as he wrote in a recent op-ed for the U.K. Independent, âcan become a blur of endless traffic, crushing loneliness, enduring fatigue and relationships strained by absence.â And he grew frustrated by the way the app always seemed to be pushing him to accept more rides, while his earnings kept declining. In 2016, he and another London Uber driver, Yaseen Aslam, brought a workerâs rights claim against the company, arguing that drivers arenât true independent contractors and should instead be classified under the U.K.âs third employment category of âworkerââentitling them to minimum wage and paid vacation days. Farrarâs team won the classification case.
But during the trials, Uber was able to use Farrarâs personal data as legal ammunition against him, he said; the company argued that the reason he made under minimum wage some days was because heâd declined several rides, not because he was being fleeced by the app. âI decided then that I needed to see all my data,â Farrar told CityLab in an email. â[S]o I could properly assert my rights and eliminate the asymmetry in information power between me and Uber.â
Uber appealed, arguing, as it long has, that it merely connects independent entrepreneurs with riders, and that a change in classification would impede driversâ freedom. (A judge said that the wording of Uberâs contract, which makes the same claim, contained a âhigh degree of fiction.â) Still, one judge out of three backed the company, and Uber was given permission to bump the trial up to the U.K.âs Supreme Court.
With the support of Ravi Naik, the lawyer who is also representing plaintiffs in data privacy cases against Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, Farrar and three other drivers have bundled their data requests, eking out more information with each challenge. This March, they filed a lawsuit against Uber for withholding some data, which they say is in breach of the European Unionâs General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This law gives E.U. citizens the right to request any and all personal data that a platform retains about them.
Though he says heâs not âanti-Uber,â Farrarâs labor rights activism has accelerated: In 2017, he helped found and became the chairman of the United Private Hire Drivers branch of the IWGB union, which represents more than a thousand workers for private hire companies. And as of this summer, he has pushed more than 60 other drivers to file similar data claims. Now heâs pooling their information online as part of an organization he founded and directs called the Worker Info Exchange. Since Uber arbitrates cases from all its worldwide markets besides North America in Amsterdam, an E.U. country, these GDPR-based claims could be replicated in dozens of countries.
With that aggregate, he wants to determine definitively how much (or little) drivers make for their timeâand how an over-supply of temporary drivers has saturated the market with idling cars. âThe negative effects of these apps are congestion and poverty, and we need the data to show that,â Farrar said.
This tension isnât an entirely new one. Mounting evidence suggests that all kinds of apps, from the Weather Channel to the selfie-filtering Perfect365, have habitually scraped location data from phones and used it to better predict consumer buying habits. And Uberâs tight grip on information is part of a long pattern for the ride-hailing titan, which has often tangled with local regulators over its vast trove of trip data. But Farrar believes that whoever gains access to Uberâs complete data caches will find something bigger than just tools for better traffic