St. Louis Uber and Lyft driver secretly live-streamed passengers, report says

Sitting in the back of a cab can have a confessional allure: Sealed off to the world, you can take a private moment for yourself or have a conversation -- casual or deeply intimate -- with a driver you will never see again.

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St. Louis Uber and Lyft Driver Secretly Live-Streamed Passengers, Report Says
Mihir Zaveri
, New York Times

Sitting in the back of a cab can have a confessional allure: Sealed off to the world, you can take a private moment for yourself or have a conversation — casual or deeply intimate — with a driver you will never see again.

Now imagine finding out days later that those moments were being streamed live on the internet to thousands of people. What’s more, some of those people paid to watch you, commenting on your appearance, sometimes explicitly, or musing about your livelihood.

This was the reality for potentially hundreds of passengers of a ride-hailing service driver in St. Louis, according to a lengthy article published in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch this weekend.

In it, Jason Gargac, 32, a driver for Uber and Lyft from Florissant, Missouri, described an elaborate $3,000 rig of cameras that he used to record and livestream passengers’ rides to the video platform Twitch. Sometimes passengers’ homes and names were revealed.

Gargac told the newspaper that he sought out passengers who might make entertaining content, part of capturing and sharing the everyday reactions that earned him a small but growing following online. Gargac said he earned $3,500 from the streaming, through subscriptions, donations and tips.

He said that at first he had informed passengers that he was recording them, but the videos felt “fake” and “produced.”

On Sunday, however, as news of Gargac’s scheme circulated around the internet, his actions were repeatedly summarized in one word: creepy.

Gargac could not be reached for comment Sunday. Uber said in a statement Sunday that it had ended its partnership with Gargac and that “the troubling behavior in the videos is not in line with our Community Guidelines.” Lyft said in a statement that Gargac had been “deactivated.”

“The safety and comfort of the Lyft community is our top priority,” it added.

On Saturday morning, Gargac tweeted that to him, “transparency is always key.”

“I’ve had a few offline conversations with some folks, and they suggested getting rid of the stored vods as step #1 of trying to calm everyone down,” he said, referring to on-demand videos on Twitch. “I’ve done that,” he added, “for now.”

His story appears to be full of contradictions. Gargac livestreamed people without their knowledge as he tried to become a police officer. He started driving in order to record and broadcast people. He asked a Post-Dispatch reporter to not use his full name in the story, to protect his privacy.

The story also raises a host of 21st-century questions about technology, when people should expect privacy and the business models of ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber. They have come under scrutiny for the oversight of their drivers, which they consider independent contractors and not employees.

“Fundamentally, exposing people, especially women, to random people on the internet is mean and it’s wrong,” said Alex Rosenblat, a researcher at the nonprofit think tank Data and Society.

Rosenblat, who is writing a book called “Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work,” said she had studied the company for four years. There has been an upward trend in recording passengers, she said, driven by “good reasons” like ensuring drivers’ safety, or being able to vouch for the quality of their service.

“What we’re seeing with this driver is just a totally different game,” she said. “This is, ‘How can I monetize passengers as content?'”

Missouri law allows a person to record others without their consent, said Ari Waldman, director of New York Law School’s Innovation Center for Law and Technology. He said victims could theoretically sue for invasion of privacy, but “would need to show that the back of an Uber is a place where we can and should be expected to be private.”

Gargac had placed a small sign on a passenger window that said the vehicle was equipped with recording devices and that “consent” was given by entering the car.

“I think it’s a larger question about privacy and technology for society, what we do when the norms around a particular technology are violated,” Rosenblat said. “You may not have violated the law, but people certainly feel violated.”

Rosenblat said Gargac was not the only driver to record and share recordings of passengers without their knowledge. Neither Lyft nor Uber answered questions Sunday about their policies, or what they do to stop or allow such behavior.

Ride-hailing services have previously come under scrutiny for the behavior of their drivers. This month, a man nicknamed “the ride-share rapist” was charged with rape and kidnapping in the assaults of four women in San Francisco.

Gargac’s Twitch videos could not be viewed Sunday. A Twitch spokesman said the company’s terms of service and guidelines “do not allow people to share content that invades others’ privacy” and that any reported videos would be removed.

Before it disappeared, Gargac’s channel had about 4,500 followers and about 100 subscribers who paid $5 a month to support his broadcasts.

The Twitch spokesman said the company does not comment on specific cases.


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