Here’s the problem with the way Uber vets drivers

After Uber was sued by San Francisco and Los Angeles Tuesday, there was a fair amount of confusion over the nature of background checks, one of the key factors the district attorneys cited in filing the suit. The questions immediately flooded my Twitter feed, such as: What’s the problem? How do Uber’s checks differ from taxi companies? Why do the DAs care?

A year ago, I learned more than I ever wanted to about background checks, following a big investigation into Uber’s practices. So I drafted a primer to get you up to speed on one of the key issues in the dispute between Uber and local governments.

Why are San Francisco and Los Angeles unhappy with Uber’s background checks?

They’re not unhappy with Uber’s background checks themselves — they’re upset at the way Uber markets them to customers. Uber has said it has the “safest rides on the road” and charges a $1 Safe Rides fee to fund its checks. But in actuality, Uber’s background checks, conducted through a company called Hirease, are arguably not as thorough as the one taxis do in California.

Wait — what? Aren’t all background checks the same?

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.

This Live Scan thing sounds good. What’s that?

It’s the only way to comb official federal, state, and county records. Live Scans use candidates’ fingerprints and update after the fact, so if someone commits a crime in the months or years after they’ve been hired, their employer will be notified. Live Scans are the standard for teachers, medics, and other professionals who work with vulnerable populations.

In California’s major metropolitan cities, taxi companies are legally required to Live Scan all drivers. Transportation is regulated by different entities depending on the state, so taxis in other places have different background check standards. In some places, Uber does a more thorough background check than taxis, but not in California.

I’m confused. If taxi companies legally have to do Live Scans in California, why doesn’t Uber?

When ridesharing was legalized in California, it was put under the jurisdiction of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which regulates certain transportation options like limousine services and trains. In California different entities — the municipal transportation authorities, like the SFMTA — regulate taxis. The CPUC decided that ridesharing companies would be held to less strict standards for background checks than taxi companies.

What does Uber use instead?

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. There are some big limitations to this. Sometimes they’re outdated or incomplete, since they aren’t accessing official government databases. The records can come from dubious sources, like Internet crawls. Such credit checks can legally only go back seven years in a person’s history (whereas Live Scans don’t have a time limit). And if a driver commits a crime after Hirease runs its initial background check, Uber won’t know.

Uber told me it does occasionally re-run its driver background checks to deal with this issue. Uber is on track to complete more than 2 million background checks in 2014, so that’s no small feat.

If Live Scans are best in class, why doesn’t Uber use them?

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. That might be a better system, although it has some obvious weaknesses (what if someone commits a crime in a county they weren’t a resident of?).

Still, Live Scans are the industry standard for employees in sensitive job roles, and if Uber wants to be “industry leading,” it should be doing them. If it ran Live Scans in addition to working with Hirease, it really would be best in class.

Are there other reasons Uber doesn’t do Live Scans?

I have a few theories:

  1. Price — Live Scans are more expensive than run-of-the-mill checks. This is the most unlikely answer given Uber’s war chest of venture capital, but it’s possible the company has future expenditure concerns in mind.
  2. Growth — Live Scans would slow down Uber’s scaling process, because every potential driver would have to get fingerprinted in person.
  3. Driver pool — Uber doesn’t want to run the risk of shrinking its potential driver pool by doing a more thorough background check.
  4. Legality — It’s possible Uber isn’t allowed to do Live Scans. Because such official searches access privileged criminal information, companies must apply to Live Scan their employees. If Uber has applied and been rejected, however, they haven’t told me.

Is there anything that makes Uber “safer than a taxi?”

Yes. Uber has stricter standards for its drivers than some taxi companies. For example, in San Francisco taxi drivers with a DUI on their records are still allowed to work, whereas Uber doesn’t accept anyone with a DUI.

Secondly, since Uber tracks its passenger and driver interactions, it has a history that can be useful in prosecuting assaults or other issues. Since taxis don’t have that digital footprint, if your driver attacks you, you won’t necessarily have the information to track them down.

The Uber driver in India who allegedly raped a passenger had a record. How does Uber do background checks abroad?

It varies from country to country. Every place has different laws for background check procedures and different ways of storing records. Live Scans only apply to the US Department of Justice and FBI systems. In the case of India, as some have pointed out, clean records are easy to forge. That makes doing comprehensive background checks challenging for any company, not just Uber.

What background checks do Lyft and Sidecar do?

Uber’s competitors also don’t do Live Scans. They work with different private agencies  similar to Hirease. But the DAs didn’t have a problem with Lyft because Lyft said it would change the description of its background checks. The DAs are still in legal negotiations with Sidecar over the issue.

Will Uber have to change its background checks now that it’s being sued?

Nope. The DAs are respecting the CPUC’s authority over this issue. But the DAs want Uber to stop marketing its driver vetting processes as the holy grail.

Perhaps down the line Uber will use some of its recently raised $1 billion war chest to make sure its background checks really are the best around.