Canadian privacy lawyers and experts are warning people who use ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft to see if their drivers are using dash-mounted cameras and ask what their purpose is after a driver in St. Louis, MO., was found live-streaming his rides online.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last weekend that a driver named Jason Gargac had filmed and broadcast hundreds of his ride-share passengers, ranging from children to famous musicians, on the website Twitch without their knowledge. Users on the website regularly commented on the videos, sometimes making lewd remarks about the riders. Many viewers donated to or paid Mr. Gargac a subscription fee, from which he said he made US$3,500. While Uber did little when passengers first complained, the Post-Dispatch said, both Uber and Lyft severed ties with the driver after the story – which raised red flags about privacy as consumers move in droves toward the increasingly popular ride-sharing apps.
“Dash cams” have become popular among ride-sharing drivers as accountability tools to record accidents or contentious issues between drivers and riders. The St. Louis case demonstrates the fine line between accountability and surveillance, but in Canada, privacy experts say a greater variety of protections and tools are available for citizens who are concerned about the purposes of such recording devices in vehicles.
Canada’s Criminal Code says that persons who “intercept a private communication” are guilty of an indictable offense that comes with a prison term of up to five years. Elliott Goldstein, a lawyer with Epstein and Associates, author and frequent consultant for the security industry, said that while one-on-one conversations between a driver and a single passenger might not fall into this category, “as soon as two passengers are talking to one another, [the driver has] got a problem with the Criminal Code.”
Canadian ride-share and taxi passengers have a distinct advantage over Americans, too, in Canada’s consumer-privacy law. The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) and its provincial counterpart legislation in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec, is regarded to grant Canadians better consumer-data privacy protections than those in the United States.
David Fraser, a privacy lawyer and partner with McInnes Cooper in Halifax, says that, as commercial activities, Uber, Lyft and taxi rides would fall under PIPEDA’s privacy protections, in turn requiring “knowledgeable, informed consent” for the collection, use and disclosure of a person’s personal information, including video surveillance. While many vehicles with dash cams have signs notifying passengers, the live-streaming of a ride is an extreme example of what such cameras can be used for - but also no longer out of the realm of possibility.
“What happens behind the lens matters a lot,” Mr. Fraser said in an interview. It’s not always easy to tell if a dash cam is on, or recording you, let alone what the recording might be used for. So it’s important to ask questions when consumers see a camera, he continues: “Is it recording? Is it being monitored by someone remotely? If it’s being recorded, where is [the video file] kept and what use is made of it?”
Uber is available in most major centres across Canada except Vancouver and has 48,000 drivers, while Lyft is available in Toronto and Ottawa, with more than 15,000 people driving; some people drive for both.
Spokespersons for Uber and Lyft said Mr. Gargac’s accounts had been deactivated. While Uber said livestreaming is not in line with its community guidelines, Lyft said the “safety and comfort” of its users is “our top priority.” Neither responded to questions about policies around recording of passengers in Canada.
In Toronto, all municipally licensed taxis have inward-facing dash cams - but unlike in less-regulated ride-share vehicles, the footage can only be accessed by law-enforcement officials and only when necessary.
The local taxi industry has taken issue with ride-sharing services - particularly when it comes to their relative lack of regulation. Kristine Hubbard, operations manager for Beck Taxi Ltd., which, with 2,100 vehicles has the city’s largest taxi fleet, says Toronto’s taxi regulations negate the privacy conflicts raised by Mr. Gargac in St. Louis or previous cases. “After 100 years of regulation ... things are the way they are in the taxi business for a reason,” Ms. Hubbard told The Globe and Mail.
Ann Cavoukian, the creator of “privacy by design,” the concept that users' privacy must be the default setting in technology development and business practices, called the prospect of a driver live-streaming passengers “totally appalling.” Europe has incorporated privacy by design into its new General Data Protection Regulation framework and she expects Canada’s Privacy Commissioner to incorporate the concept into PIPEDA very soon, which would strengthen the protections of privacy and need for consent in such situations.
“You don’t have to ask for privacy – you get it automatically,” Ms. Cavoukian said in an interview. If Mr. Gargac were in a jurisdiction that incorporated privacy by design, she said, “it would be against the law for him to do this, because he’s not obtaining any consent, which is ridiculous.”