Uber is teaming up with Microsoft Cognitive Services in the initiative, which it says protects both riders and workers by prompting drivers to share a photo before going online, and then at undefined intervals afterward. The company has come under fire for its driver screening standards, with some major cities taking issue with the fact that it doesn’t use fingerprint scanning for its background checks.
The feature was already being piloted in Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Atlanta, but on Friday the company expanded it nationwide.
“We want to make sure that the driver who has been screened is the driver who is riding that day,” Joe Sullivan, Uber’s chief security officer, said in an interview in advance of the announcement.
The change means drivers in D.C. and elsewhere shouldn’t be surprised if they are prompted to share a selfie before going online beginning this week. Drivers whose photos don’t match the one on file will have their accounts temporarily suspended while Uber investigates.
Though it’s likely some drivers will be less than enthusiastic about an added task before shuttling passengers, Uber says the process takes seconds. During its pilot, more than 99 percent of drivers were verified, it said. Glitches were mostly due to unclear profile photos.
“Given that verification takes only a few seconds to complete, this feature proactively and efficiently builds more security into the app,” the company said in its announcement.
Microsoft Corporate Vice President Andrew Shuman said the facial recognition software is the same technology Microsoft’s Bing search engine uses for its reverse image search. Shuman said the photos are securely collected and stored.
“We use the photos to improve the algorithms, but we make sure they’re completely anonymized and stripped of any metadata like that,” he said.
Sullivan said the feature provides a dual-benefit to drivers and passengers. But in its pilot phase, it wasn’t without its quirks. He said Uber and Microsoft had to develop features such as glasses detection to reduce “false-positive deactivations,” and adjust it to prevent drivers from having to verify while the car was in motion. It was tested on tens of thousands, Uber said.
“Drivers consider their accounts valuable. It’s their livelihood in many instances,” Sullivan said, adding, “riders find it very disorienting to get in the car and see someone different than the profile photo that was shown to them in advance of the ride.”
No single incident prompted the change, but Uber admits passengers have been spooked after being picked up by someone other than the driver pictured in the app. Most commonly, the person driving was a relative or another person close to the account holder.
“We want to discourage that, we want the real account owner to know that’s not a good thing,” Sullivan said.
Uber has unrolled a bevy of features over the past year aimed at improving the driver experience, amid tense labor negotiations between the company and its workforce. Drivers have pushed for better compensation, benefits and employee status, rather than being classified as independent contractors.
The features include: the ability to pause requests if drivers needed to grab a cup of coffee or use the bathroom, paying drivers for wait times exceeding two minutes and allowing commuting drivers to receive trip requests that only occurred along their pre-determined route.
Uber has also begun monitoring its workers’ driving behaviors over the past few months in an effort to improve safety.