Uber is sharing user data on drivers or riders who may have come into contact with coronavirus-infected individuals to aid contact tracing efforts
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The ride-hailing giant unveiled an initiative to share user data on drivers or riders who may have come into contact with coronavirus-infected individuals with global public health officials to aid contact tracing efforts.

According to Uber, public health officials can visit their Portal — an enhanced version of the Law Enforcement Response Portal launched in 2017 to help process police requests — to fill out questions and request data about users with confirmed cases of coronavirus. Based on the guidance of these public health officials, Uber can then take actions like temporarily suspending a coronavirus-infected user’s account for 14 days. 

For context, when contacted by a public health official, Uber notifies the user in question and provides them with the contact information of the public health official’s department so that they can gather more information.

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Uber’s service could help track infected individuals in states where coronavirus cases are rising — but its data may only be useful among certain demographics, like younger cohorts.US states like Texas and Florida have reported a soaring number of coronavirus cases in July.

review of US state health departments revealed that these states are not currently tapping into ride-hailing data to track the spread of the coronavirus — which public health professionals say could help identify a large swath of potentially infected individuals in cities with significant Uber user bases.

And considering that Uber currently holds nearly 103 million million active US users, its new service could go a long way toward supplementing manual contact tracing efforts in hard-hit states like Florida: Human contact tracers in Florida say they’ve had to shorten the length of interviews by at least half to contend with the surge in cases — suggesting their efforts could be less comprehensive. However, we expect that Uber data may only be useful in providing insight about coronavirus among certain demographics: A large portion (45%) of Uber or Lyft users are under the age of 29, and most (69%) earn an annual income of $60,000 or more. 

Uber’s initiative adds to the litany of moves tech companies are making in contact tracing — but we think its efforts will be hampered by consumer distrust and programs from larger tech firms, like Apple and Google.Uber isn’t the only tech giant diving into contact tracing: Apple and Google combined forces to launch a contact tracing effort in mid-April. And the University of Washington (UW) teamed up with Microsoft to roll out a contact tracing app the same month.

The fact that there’s a number of digital contact-tracing programs deployed across the US likely means no single initiative will be used on a wide enough scale to have a meaningful impact on curbing the spread of the coronavirus. And Uber’s effort is likely to be overshadowed by those from tech giants with larger footprints in the US.

Additionally, we think Uber’s offering could raise concern among consumers, considering a sliver of the population trusts Uber with handling sensitive health info: According to a 2019 Rock Health survey, less than a quarter of the 10% of US adults willing to share health data with a tech company peg Uber as a worthy recipient.

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Correction: We have amended this post to include additional context around how public health officials and Uber are using Uber users’ data. — July 22, 2020 

Axel Springer, Insider Inc.’s parent company, is an investor in Uber.

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