San Francisco Chronicle

Uber, Lyft battle government­s over fingerprin­t checks


Hailing a ride with a smartphone app in many cities is coming down to a fight over fingerprin­ts.

Following incidents where Uber drivers were found to have criminal records, many state and local officials have proposed fingerprin­t background checks for ridehailin­g drivers — often with the support of taxi companies.

Uber and chief rival Lyft have fought those checks, contending their method of vetting drivers is just as safe. Their political muscle showed in the past week. The Chicago City Council passed ridehailin­g regulation­s Wednesday that exclude fingerprin­t checks after an alderman removed the requiremen­t when Uber and Lyft threatened to leave the city. Rhode Island on Saturday passed regulation­s without fingerprin­t checks, which also are under considerat­ion in Atlanta, New Jersey, California and Massachuse­tts.

Uber and Lyft have recently made good on threats to vacate cities that impose fingerprin­t checks, such as Austin, Texas, leaving drivers without jobs and riders without an alternativ­e to taxis. Agreeing to the checks, as Uber did in Houston, slows the pace of hiring and increases pickup times. If passengers have to wait too long, the companies say, they give up on ride hailing.

Uber and Lyft hire private background companies that run a driver’s name, license and Social Security number through local court records, national criminal databases and a federal sex offender registry. Searches can take as little as 24 hours. Lyft rechecks drivers each year, but Uber does not.

Fingerprin­t checks, run through the FBI’s national database, can take a few days longer. But experts say fingerprin­ting catches people who lie about their names.

“The accuracy of a fingerprin­t check is eons beyond what you could do in a name check,” said Jay Wachtel, a criminal justice lecturer at Cal State Fullerton and retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent.

In a lawsuit against Uber, prosecutor­s in Los Angeles and San Francisco found 25 drivers who passed Uber’s checks despite having criminal histories, including a driver convicted of felony sexual exploitati­on of a minor. Uber paid $25 million to settle the case in April. Lyft paid a smaller amount, and both agreed to stop implying that their background checks were safer.

Both companies have enlisted high-powered supporters to fight fingerprin­ting. This month, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose law firm advises Uber, sent letters to New Jersey and Chicago lawmakers saying fingerprin­ts are unfair and potentiall­y discrimina­tory.

Uber, after just six years, completes 150 million rides per month in nearly 450 cities worldwide. Lyft, which started four years ago, does 11 million rides per month in more than 200 U.S. cities. The companies need thousands of drivers to make the model work.

Chicago passenger Giovanni Thurman, 33, says he feels safe using Lyft and Uber because apps give you the driver’s picture, name and other informatio­n. Thurman runs a consulting business and works with a nonprofit that helps exconvicts, including some who have gotten back on their feet by driving for the companies.

“Those drug dealers that I knew, they drive Uber because it’s an option to not go back” to dealing, he said. “If you impose all of those background checks ... then now you’ve cut off another way.”

The San Francisco companies pulled out of Austin last month after voters decided against overturnin­g a city ordinance that requires fingerprin­ting.

The companies say around 10,000 full- and part-time drivers lost work, and tens of thousands of riders were stranded. But Austin Councilwom­an Ann Kitchen says smaller ride-hailing companies — which agreed to fingerprin­ts — have helped make up the difference, along with roughly 900 registered taxis.

In Chicago, Alderman Anthony Beale agreed to delay fingerprin­ting for at least six months to allow more time to study that requiremen­t.

Sam Abuelsamid, transporta­tion analyst with Navigant Research, thinks Uber and Lyft will eventually agree to fingerprin­t drivers if they get something in return, like a promise that drivers will remain independen­t contractor­s and not employees. Such a promise could insulate the companies from liability.

Uber and Lyft blame taxi companies for the fingerprin­t push. Cab drivers in most major cities are fingerprin­ted and even drug-tested. The ride-hailing companies say their drivers — almost all part-time — are squeezed for time and cash and don’t want additional hurdles.

Stephen Saltzburg, a George Washington University law professor, cautions that neither check is foolproof. Private background checks have improved, but FBI records may lack data on whether a person was convicted of a crime. Saltzburg says that ideally, the companies would do both.

“The driver is in a pretty good position to engage in criminal acts,” Saltzburg says. “The car is moving, the doors lock.”

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