Scientists Found a Way to Hide Your Travel Data from Ride-Hailing Services

Anyone who's serious about digital privacy needs to check this out.

Hemant Mishra/Mint

Modern ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft have been an enormous convenience for many of us, but at what cost? When you use these apps, you’re sending data about where you are and where you’re going to the company hooking you up with a ride. Once that data is sent, that company does pretty much whatever they want with your information.

This is a necessary evil in ride-hailing services, but that could change soon. Swiss scientists have come up with a new software called ORide which stands for “Oblivious Ride.” It keeps your data secret making the company who might want to misuse your information oblivious to your ride.

ORide is quite brilliant in its relative simplicity. If implemented, it would still allow you to continue using an existing ride-hailing app, but the only information they’ll get is how much the ride cost and the distance you traveled. ORide encrypts the data showing your location and only makes it available to the driver who needs it. Team member Jean-Pierre Hubaux told Mediacom it won’t impact the user experience and that encryption “adds just a few milliseconds to the search time.”

This might sound like it would only be useful for giving Ron Swanson-types some peace of mind keeping their information secret from “the man,” but digital privacy is a serious matter. Especially when we know Uber has been using location data to do things like track down drivers who were also driving for Lyft.

There’s just one problem. The ride-hailing services need to be onboard. It’s still in the testing process and when it’s done, the scientists at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne will try selling it to Uber, Lyft, et al. When asked why the ride-hailing services his technology would keep secrets from would sign on for it, Hubaux said “confidentiality could be a selling point or a way to avoid a legal battle if a firm has to share the data it has access to with the secret services.” So, it’s up to the ride-hailing services to decide what’s more important; a juicy selling point or your precious travel data.