Uber has admitted ‘mistakes were made’ in an identity fraud scandal which allowed over 14,000 fares to be taken by bogus drivers.
But the private hire ride-hailing giant insisted only 24 drivers were responsible and the problem was ‘not endemic or widespread’.
In a court appeal which started yesterday, Uber is appealing against Transport for London’s (TfL) decision not to renew its operating licence because of safety breaches that put passengers at risk.
Unauthorised drivers had been using a flaw in Uber’s system that allowed them to upload their photograph onto legitimate driver’s accounts, Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard.
More than 44,000 thousand trips were taken using bogus identities created by drivers deactivating their GPS location to seem as if they were in another country.
Tim Ward, for Uber, said ‘as far as Uber knows’ they had identified 24 drivers who shared their identities with 20 drivers between August 2018 and January 2019.
”It is a massive regret that this happened and a number of trips were taken,“ he said.
“This has been resolved and there are a huge number of reasons Uber has tackled this to stop it from happening today.
“This is not an endemic or widespread problem, it is a specific fraud undertaken by a small group, a very small group among 45,000 drivers who use the app.
“It’s now common ground that we meet the required standards and can provide assurance that this will not happen again.
“There is no question that mistakes were made, it was too slow to escalate to TfL.
“When one steps back, the overall picture is of sustained efforts not to repeat itself.
“LTDA’s (Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association) case is that Uber attempted to conceal this issue, those submissions are emphatically rejected.
“We told TfL of photo fraud issues of their own volition and sought to give full assurance that it has been resolved.”
The root cause was identified by November 2018 and the issue was raised in an email to TfL ‘at the highest level’, said Mr Ward.
The next time the identity fraud issue was outlined was in the appendix of the 268 page ‘assurance report’ provided to TFL in December 2018.
Mr Ward said: “There is a paradox here, Uber was doing the right thing in the interests of passenger safety, they reacted fast but having done that they did fail to escalate it.
“There’s a lot of criticism of what happened here particularly from the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association.
“There was no intention to mislead by putting it in the annex, this was just the way it was chosen to be presented.
“This is just Uber grappling with a very difficult problem and possibly not communicating it in the best way.’
“There has been various efforts to combat driver identity fraud, they were maybe not perfect and free from error.
“We now know from subsequent reviews that other cases were picked up, if it has been appreciated what we know things would have gone very differently.”
Mr Ward said of the 781 wrong driver complaints in 2019, only 16 lead to drivers access deactivated, 97-98 per cent of these cases were mistaken.
They now require drivers to attend a ‘green light’ photo backdrop for their photo to be taken and that drivers are now suspended while investigations take place.
A review of the photographs, dubbed the ‘Arizona Audit’ by facial recognition experts, found that from 80,000 photographs checked there were no further cases.
Uber argue they are now ‘fit and proper’ to hold a Private Hire Vehicle (PHV) licence and are not appealing against TfL’s previous decision, the court heard.
“It has striven through a process of constant change to address and to improve on concerns, it has also owned up to TfL whilst trying to fix matters,“ said Mr Ward.
“Far from brushing things under the rug it has sought to bring them out.”
Uber says it has submitted evidence that ‘amply demonstrates’ it is a fit and proper person to hold a PHV (Private Hire Vehicle) licence.
TfL’s November 2019 written decision to refuse their licence renewal gave them credit for their governance, communication with TfL and the police and recognised ‘class-leading innovations which advance public safety’, they say in their skeleton arguments submitted to the court.
‘It is nevertheless the case that TfL has raised a number of detailed criticisms,’ their skeleton argument admits.
‘ULL has treated each of them with the utmost seriousness.
‘As a result, it is now common ground that the picture has substantially altered from that which TfL was called upon to consider at the time of the Decision.
‘The picture which consistently emerges is of an operator that, while it has made mistakes, is committed to compliance, responsive to feedback, and deeply concerned to meet its regulator’s expectations.’
Uber points out that there had been failures in its compliance with licence requirements but had now implemented Programme ZERO which aims to have no issues of breaches in licence conditions.
It highlights that the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) wrote to TfL to say ULL were ‘at the forefront’ and ‘industry leaders’ in police engagement and had ‘definitely raised industry standards in a way that should be encouraged across other Operators’.
Positive independent assessment of their management sytems by KPMG and PAC who approved of their improvements in making a ‘manual link’ in their complaints process.
Mr Ward said 69% of its drivers use an innovative automatic insurance scheme, Instadoc, that shows how seriously it takes the issue.
He said: “This has won high praise from the insurance industry itself, the largest PHV insurers had to say about this.
“This is an innovative and powerful tool that puts Uber in a far stronger position than any other PHV provider to deal with these issues.
“This system is comprehensive and plainly indicative of their fitness and propriety and in my submission answers the concerns that TfL has raised about this, yes there have been some breaches in this area but the systems in place are evidently better.”
The hearing continues today.