Uber, Lyft fight against fin­ger­print­ing for driv­ers

Com­pa­nies ar­gue FBI data­base is less ac­cu­rate than their pri­vate sys­tems

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Sarah Gantz

Pop­u­lar ride-hail­ing com­pa­nies Uber and Lyft will plead their case today be­fore the Mary­land Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion that they should not be re­quired to finger­print driv­ers.

Fin­ger­print­ing is a stan­dard part of the back­ground check process for taxi­cab driv­ers and many other pro­fes­sion­als li­censed by the state. But Uber and Lyft ar­gue finger­print-based back­ground checks are less ac­cu­rate than their own pri­vate sys­tems and dis­crim­i­nate against mi­nori­ties who are more likely to be in the crim­i­nal record sys­tem fol­low­ing an ar­rest, even if never con­victed.

Un­der a state law passed in 2015, the com­pa­nies are re­quired to be­gin back­ground check­ing driv­ers Dec. 15 us­ing the finger­print data­base main­tained by the state and the FBI, un­less they prove their ap­proach is equally ef­fec­tive. Both com­pa­nies filed sep­a­rate pe­ti­tions with the state Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion, which reg­u­lates rideshar­ing com­pa­nies, for per­mis­sion to con­tinue do­ing back­ground checks their way.

Uber has said it will pull out of Mary­land if fin­ger­print­ing is en­forced. Lyft has not said it would with­draw, but pointed out that it does not op­er­ate in any mar­ket where fin­ger­print­ing is re­quired ex­cept New York City.

The de­bate comes against a backdrop of head­line-grab­bing in­ci­dents in­volv­ing ride-share driv­ers — in­clud­ing here in Mary­land — and grow­ing con­cern about rider safety. In Oc­to­ber, an Uber driver in

Fred­er­ick was charged with sex­u­ally as­sault­ing a 14-year-old girl he picked up. An Uber driver in Gaithers­burg was ar­rested in May af­ter he tried to shoot po­lice of­fi­cers with a home­made gun.

Crit­ics point to these in­ci­dents and oth­ers around the coun­try as ev­i­dence that pri­vate back­ground checks aren’t good enough.

“We’re see­ing a lot of peo­ple hurt by so-called part-time driv­ers,” said Dave Sut­ton, a spokesman for Who’s Driv­ing You?, an or­ga­ni­za­tion work­ing on be­half of the Taxi­cab, Li­mou­sine & Para­tran­sit As­so­ci­a­tion to push for greater reg­u­la­tion of ride-hail­ing com­pa­nies.

Dur­ing the Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion hear­ing, sched­uled to run into next week, Uber and Lyft plan to call a long list of crim­i­nal jus­tice ex­perts to make the case that fin­ger­print­ing is un­nec­es­sar­ily oner­ous for peo­ple seek­ing part-time work and could un­fairly block some from em­ploy­ment while do­ing lit­tle to im­prove safety for cus­tomers.

“Fin­ger­print­ing is a decades-old tech­nol­ogy with sig­nif­i­cant lim­i­ta­tions. By re­ly­ing on in­com­plete fed­eral data and out­dated ar­rest records, fin­ger­print­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ately dis­ad­van­tages minority com­mu­ni­ties,” said Adrian Durbin, a spokesman for Lyft. “In con­trast, the mod­ern back­ground check process we use in Mary­land is com­pre­hen­sive and rig­or­ous, pulling data di­rectly from na­tional and lo­cal court data­bases that are up-to-date while still en­cour­ag­ing part-time driv­ers, who make up the vast ma­jor­ity of our Mary­land com­mu­nity, to drive with Lyft.”

The com­mis­sion staff, which was tasked with re­view­ing the pro­pos­als and eval­u­at­ing them against the state’s method, said it does not think Uber’s and Lyft’s com­mer­cial back­ground checks are as com­pre­hen­sive and ac­cu­rate as the state’s stan­dard for taxi­cab driv­ers.

Uber and Lyft work with pri­vate com­pa­nies to run names, So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers, driver’s li­cense num­bers and other per­sonal in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by ap­pli­cants through crime data­bases, sex of­fender reg­istries and So­cial Se­cu­rity records. The process in­volves in-per­son trips to court­houses to dou­ble-check records.

The com­mis­sion staff cited three main concerns about that ap­proach. Un­like fin­ger­print­ing, it does not ad­dress ap­pli­cants who pro­vide false in­for­ma­tion, it may not cap­ture older of­fenses and it doesn’t pro­vide au­to­matic up­dates, said Christo­pher T. Ko­er­mer, di­rec­tor of the com­mis­sion’s trans­porta­tion divi­sion, in writ­ten tes­ti­mony.

Mary­land’s Crim­i­nal Jus­tice In­for­ma­tion Sys­tem is the cen­tral repos­i­tory for all crim­i­nal record in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing ar­rests, ac­quit­tals, con­vic­tions and sen­tences. It is fed by crim­i­nal jus­tice units through­out the state and sends up­dates to li­cens­ing agen­cies — in­clud­ing the pub­lic ser­vice com­mis­sion — when a new in­ci­dent is recorded for some­one li­censed by the state.

Ko­er­mer also took aim at the ar­gu­ment that driv­ers should not have to be fin­ger­printed be­cause they’re part time. Doc­tors, nurses, day care and el­der care providers, air­port work­ers, teach­ers and bus driv­ers all must be fin­ger­printed — re­gard­less of whether they work full time or part time.

But Uber and Lyft ar­gue finger­print data­bases are an in­com­plete pic­ture of an ap­pli­cant’s crim­i­nal history.

Fin­ger­prints aren’t al­ways taken when some­one is ar­rested, which means the data­bases could be miss­ing crim­i­nal records. What’s more, they say, records are not al­ways up­dated when a case is dis­missed or charges are dropped.

“Based on my ex­pe­ri­ence as a lo­cal and fed­eral prose­cu­tor, and as a crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­ney, it is clear that gov­ern­ment repos­i­tory rap sheets fre­quently do not pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive or ac­cu­rate record of an in­di­vid­ual’s crim­i­nal history, par­tic­u­larly when com­pared with court records,” said Glenn F. Ivey, a for­mer state’s at­tor­ney for Prince Ge­orge’s County, in writ­ten tes­ti­mony sub­mit­ted on be­half of Uber.

“Thus, us­ing these rap sheets will very likely lead to in­ac­cu­rate re­sults, which will be es­pe­cially un­fair for minority ap­pli­cants,” Ivey said in writ­ten tes­ti­mony.

Fin­ger­print­ing hasn’t hurt diver­sity among Bal­ti­more taxi­cab driv­ers, said Dwight Kines, vice pres­i­dent for Tran­sdev on De­mand, which op­er­ates Checker and Yel­low Cab in Bal­ti­more. Tran­sdev has about 600 driv­ers in Bal­ti­more, about 570 of whom would be con­sid­ered mi­nori­ties, he said.

“It sure hasn’t kept us from hir­ing mi­nori­ties at all,” Kines said.

The vast ma­jor­ity of states and cities where Uber and Lyft op­er­ate have state or lo­cal laws that ac­cept their back­ground check process, or don’t have rules specif­i­cally gov­ern­ing the is­sue.

But as in­ci­dents in­volv­ing driv­ers con­tinue to grab head­lines, more are con­sid­er­ing tighter reg­u­la­tions.

Uber’s gen­eral man­ager for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Mary­land and Vir­ginia said the com­pany hopes to con­vince state reg­u­la­tors that its back­ground checks suf­fi­ciently pro­tect rid­ers’ safety.

Tom Hayes, the Uber of­fi­cial, said in a state­ment: “We look for­ward to dis­cussing this record with our part­ners at the Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion and demon­strat­ing our on­go­ing com­mit­ment to pub­lic safety, eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity, and ex­panded ac­cess to trans­porta­tion op­tions for Mary­lan­ders.”

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