Is The “Sharing Economy” Sharing Your Data With Law Enforcement?

Airbnb and VRBO are shaking up the hospitality industry by letting anyone with a spare room become an innkeeper. Uber and Lyft are disrupting the for-hire car market by letting you turn your car into a taxi. While these new platforms might be opening up the so-called “sharing” economy, some of them may also be a bit too willing to share user data with law enforcement.

For its annual “Who Has Your Back?” report, the Electronic Frontier Foundation chose to focus on some of the big names in this growing field, looking at how each of them handles and reports on law enforcement requests for user data.

The report looked at 10 of the bigger players in the sharing arena: ridesharing platforms Uber, Lyft, Getaround, and Turo; delivery services Instacart and Postmates; homesharing sites Airbnb, Flipkey, and VRBO; and freelance gig platform TaskRabbit.

Each of these companies was then rated on the following six issues:

• Do they require a warrant to access user content?
• Do they require a warrant to disclose the user’s possible location?
• Do they publish a transparency report regarding requests from law enforcement?
• Do they publish guidelines regarding their law enforcement related policies?
• Do they alert users to demands from the government for user data?
• Do they push lawmakers in Congress for stronger privacy protections?

“These companies collect information on what you buy, where you sleep, and where you travel—whether you are offering services, or purchasing them,” explains Rainey Reitman of the EFF. “Often they go even further, collecting contents of communications and geolocation information from your cell phone. But are these companies respecting their users’ rights when the government comes knocking? For much of the gig economy, the answer is no.”

Only two companies — Uber and Lyft — were able to answer yes to all six questions, while five companies (Getaround, Postmates, TaskRabbit, Turo, and VRBO) came up short in every category.

FlipKey, which is owned by TripAdvisor, received four out six stars from the EFF. Its policies and practices seem to be in line with making sure that authorities go through the proper legal channels to obtain user data, but it doesn’t publish a transparency report, nor does it make its law enforcement guidelines public.

Airbnb and Instacart were the only two other services to merit any stars. They both require warrants for accessing user data, but not for location-based information. Unlike FlipKey, they do publish their law enforcement guidelines, but the don’t provide a transparency report to their users, nor do they share information about data demands made by the government.

“We see a clear trend in our report: while some sharing economy companies have prioritized standing up for user privacy in the face of government demands, many others have not,” says EFF Senior Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo. “This is a wake-up call to the gig economy companies and the people who use them. It’s time for these services to catch up with the rest of the industry and safeguard our data from government overreach — ensuring that law enforcement access to this trove of information is fair, just, and only in accordance with the rule of law.”

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