Uber makes London a ‘safer place’, court hears

Uber makes London a ‘safer place’, a court has heard as the taxi app battles against TfL for its licence to be renewed.  

The ride hailing app, which first operated in London in 2012, has admitted ‘mistakes were made’ in the identity fraud scandal that allowed 24 bogus drivers to take 14,788 rides.

It is appealing Transport for London’s (TfL) decision not to renew its operating licence because of safety breaches that put passengers at risk.

The company was awarded a five-year licence in 2012, but in September 2017 TfL refused to renew it – and the ride hailing app had to go to court where a judge handed it a 15-month licence in June 2018.

Uber, which first operated in London in 2012, has admitted ‘mistakes were made’ in the identity fraud scandal that allowed 24 bogus drivers to take thousands of rides (file image)

It was then given a further two-month licence in September 2019, after which TfL rejected Uber’s application for a new licence, citing ‘several breaches that placed passengers and their safety at risk’.   

Deputy chief magistrate Tan Ikram will now determine whether the ride-sharing app is ‘fit and proper’ to hold a private hire vehicle (PHV) licence after the four-day hearing this week.  

Tim Ward QC, representing Uber, said improvements had been made, including in the company’s governance and document review systems.

He told Westminster Magistrates’ Court: ‘It is a different business to that which existed in 2017, when TfL refused the licence extension.

‘There have been far-reaching developments relevant to that question since that decision.

‘We accept its past conduct is relevant to that question, but so is the progress it has made.’

The court heard Uber has grown to around 45,000 drivers in the capital since launching in 2012.

‘In a short space of time, the app has become integral to how Londoners and other people get around,’ Mr Ward said.

He said denying the company a licence would have a ‘profound effect’ on groups at risk of street harassment such as women and ethnic minorities, as well as disabled people.

Tim Ward QC, representing Uber, told Westminster Magistrates' Court improvements had been made, including in the company's governance and document review systems (file image)

Tim Ward QC, representing Uber, told Westminster Magistrates’ Court improvements had been made, including in the company’s governance and document review systems (file image)

‘London is a safer place with Uber in the market than without it,’ Mr Ward said. 

Mr Ward told the court Uber London Ltd had made several improvements, including on document verification and governance.

TfL’s rejection of Uber referenced a vulnerability in its systems which allowed unauthorised people to upload their photographs to legitimate driver accounts, enabling them to pick up passengers.

This was addressed by Mr Ward, who said ‘powerful protections’ had been implemented to prevent this after it was exploited by a gang.

He said: ‘This is a matter of immense regret that this happened and a large number of trips were taken by the drivers before the issue was detected.’ 

Mr Ward said Uber had raised the issue with TfL of its own accord and had not attempted to conceal the issue. 

Marie Dimitriou, representing TfL, said: ‘The question for the court is not really about whether the underlying breaches have been rectified, we can see that Uber has now belatedly addressed those issues.’

She said a pattern of ‘breaches’ leaves the possibility of ‘future serious breaches’.  

‘You will have to look at the entire picture and ask yourself: is that good enough, or does that pattern of breaches reveal a problem, namely, an ongoing risk to passengers?

‘At what point does one look at a pattern of breaches and reform and decide that this is not proper.’

Ms Dimitriou said drivers often offer their services on more than one app so any driver issues need to be escalated quickly.

‘It’s not a matter of formality, it’s really an intrinsic issue for keeping passengers safe,’ she said.

‘Where somebody has not been vetted there is simply no way of knowing whether this person is a safe person to be driving around.

‘Passengers were exposed to that during a very very large number of trips.’

She said once TfL were told about the number of bogus drivers it was ‘extremely concerned’, especially after further issues were uncovered. 

‘We say that that’s not a minute thing, one case corresponded potentially to hundred journeys, any one of which could have exposed passengers to risk,’ she added.

‘TfL was extremely concerned that these breaches had occurred and that after the disclosure further breaches had been uncovered.

‘Particularly in relation to three drivers who were subject to very serious complaints, they were not deactivated for one and half years, driving potentially thousands and thousands of drivers.

‘It is very troubling that TfL found itself during the last appeal that it was confronted again by a series of serious regulatory branches.’

She blasted Uber for not telling TfL about any problems in an ‘adequate and timely manner’. 

Uber is appealing Transport for London's (TfL) decision to not renew its operating licence because of safety breaches that put passengers at risk (file image)

Uber is appealing Transport for London’s (TfL) decision to not renew its operating licence because of safety breaches that put passengers at risk (file image)

‘Mr Ward accepts that mistakes were made, this is of very great importance not simply because it caused TfL to query whether Uber appreciated seriousness, in particular customer safety,’ she said.

‘They now say do but TfL wondered at the time. It’s essential that there’s very swift communication with TfL because any delay can unacceptably compromise passenger safety.’

Helen Chapman, TfL’s Director of Licensing, Regulation and Charging, said: ‘We found Uber not fit and proper to hold a new private hire operator’s licence on 25 November 2019.

‘Uber has submitted an appeal and it will now be for a magistrate to determine if they are fit and proper.’

Some 14,000 thousand trips were taken using bogus identities created by drivers deactivating their GPS location to seem as if they were in another country.

Uber’s written submissions say: ‘The flaw was discovered by a gang of fraudsters and it lay in the fact that by turning off or ‘spoofing’ the app’s GPS, a dishonest driver could hide the fact that they were located in the UK and thereby circumvent the block on uploading a profile photograph.

‘The exploitation of this vulnerability resulted in drivers on the ULL app sharing their accounts with drivers and 14,788, journeys being taken on the affected accounts.’

It has not been specified if the journey’s were in London or the whole of the UK. 

Mr Ward said ‘as far as Uber knows’ they had identified 24 drivers who shared their identities with 20 drivers.

‘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 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.

Uber now requires  a ‘green light’ photo backdrop for drivers’ photos to be taken and drivers are 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.

Mr Ward outlined several measures that had been implemented, including a freeze on drivers who had not taken a trip for an extended period, real-time driver ID verification and new scrutiny teams and processes. 

Mr Ward told the court Uber had a strong commitment to complying with the regulations.

Referring to one condition of its current licence, which is thought to be unique, Mr Ward said that within 48 hours of a safety-related complaint against a driver, Uber is required to decide whether to remove or suspend the driver and notify TfL.

Giving an example of its compliance, he added the company had fixed a problem of premature insurance, where drivers would be allowed to take trips with valid insurance that would begin in the future, within three hours.

Mr Ward also said the company is in regular contact with police forces and has been praised for its co-operation with authorities.

The hearing continues.