Friday, August 21, 2015

On background checks, taxis, and Uber/Lyft


As of the city of Los Angeles and other cities go back and forth regarding the legality of Uber, Lyft, and similar companies, I became interested in the whole "background check" part of the deal. The DISCLOSURE at the top of the post gives you a clue regarding my personal interest in this matter.

A couple of points need to be made at the outset. First, as far as they are concerned, Uber and Lyft are not taxi companies. They are rideshare companies which just happen to have a lot of people who "share" rides rather than hailing taxis. While some of us say that if it looks like a taxi and (gag) smells like a taxi, it's a taxi, Uber and Lyft maintain differently. (Perhaps with reason: I could fly to Las Vegas, or drive to Las Vegas. If I drive to Las Vegas, I do not go through a TSA security process. Isn't that unfair?)

The second point: obviously my interest is in Live Scans. But a Live Scan is just a tool - and, as we will see, the use of this particular tool is not the most important difference between taxi background checks and Uber/Lyft background checks.

For my comparison of the background checks performed by taxi companies vs. the background checks performed by Uber and Lyft, I relied upon a December 2014 GigaOM post. Author Carmel DeAmicis researched this thoroughly, and outlined the differences between the background checks. DeAmicis started by stating the following:

Background checks come in all shapes and sizes. You can pay a private investigator more than $1,000 to dig into every aspect of a person’s life. You could drop $15 on a dirt-cheap consumer agency that gathers their records from the internet. Or you could spend $60-$90 on Live Scans, which go through official Department of Justice and FBI databases.

If you are a taxi driver, and your local jurisdiction requires you to perform a fingerprint-based background check, you go to a service provider, pay a fee, and have your fingerprints collected. Those fingerprints are then forwarded to the Department of Justice. Yes, this allows your fingerprints to be compared against criminal fingerprints to make sure that you're not Charles Manson. If the FBI has a criminal record for someone, and your fingerprints match that someone, then you've been caught - and depending upon the charges, your career as a taxi driver is over before it starts.

What does Uber do? Well, in California, Uber drivers aren't taxi drivers, so they don't have to do the fingerprint check.

Uber uses a private background check company called Hirease. Without fingerprints, Hirease runs drivers’ social security numbers through the type of records databases held by credit agencies.

Those aren't official government records, however, and are legally prohibited from listing things that happened more than seven years ago. I guess that means that Charles Manson would turn out OK, since he hasn't committed a crime in the last seven years. Of course, he hasn't bought anything in the last seven years either, so his credit probably isn't that good.

So Uber checks are always worse than taxi checks, then? Not exactly. For one thing, not all jurisdictions require taxi drivers to conduct fingerprint-based background checks, a point that DeAmicis notes. In addition, DeAmicis notes that government records themselves aren't always perfect.

Uber argues, and rightly so, that the DOJ and FBI databases are flawed. Counties don’t always regularly report their records to the state, so information gets outdated. Hirease sends runners in person to pull court records of each Uber applicant in the counties they’ve lived in.

In short, you can poke holes in either background check system, and the requirements vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so you can't say that taxi drivers are always checked more thoroughly than Uber/Lyft drivers, or that Uber/Lyft drivers are always checked more thoroughly than taxi drivers.

And even if a taxi driver or ridersharer passed a background check with flying colors, perhaps he or she may decide during YOUR ride that it's time to commit a criminal act for the first time.

No system is 100% secure.
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