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Uber drivers take ride biz to European court over 'Kafkaesque' algorithmic firings by Mastermind code

Lawsuit challenges robo-dismissals, Uber insists it manually reviewed cases

Four Uber drivers in the UK and Portugal who claim they were dismissed unfairly by the company's anti-fraud algorithm have challenged their account deactivations in a European court, citing GDPR protections against automated decision making.

The App Drivers & Couriers Union, a UK-based worker advocacy group, filed a legal complaint on Monday in a district court in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on behalf of the dismissed drivers.

"Uber has been allowed to violate employment law with impunity for years and now we are seeing a glimpse into an Orwellian world of work where workers have no rights and are managed by machine," said Yaseen Aslam, President of the App Drivers & Couriers Union, in a statement. "If Uber is not checked, this practice will become the norm for everyone."

Anton Ekker, the attorney representing the four former drivers – three from the UK and one from Portugal – said in a statement that the case represents the first challenge under the GDPR to automated decisions affecting the estimated 3.9m Uber drivers worldwide.

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Article 22 of the GDPR states individuals "have the right not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing, including profiling, which produces legal effects concerning him or her or similarly significantly affects him or her."

According to an English translation of the complaint [PDF], Uber relies on a fraud detection system called "Mastermind," which the company describes on its website. The system's ostensible goal is to help Uber police its platform at scale.

The four drivers were kicked off the Uber platform, the complaint contends, because the company's system raised fraud flags based on the drivers' activities and interactions. The App Drivers & Couriers Union recounts the reasons Uber cited in cancelling the respective drivers' accounts and claims the drivers were not given a chance to appeal:

  • Driver one in London, was accused of "irregular trips associated with fraudulent activities."
  • Uber claims Driver two, also in London, used "the installation of and use of software which has the intention and effect of manipulating the Driver App."
  • Driver three in Birmingham, was fired after "a continued pattern of improper use of the Uber application."
  • Driver four in Lisbon, Portugal, lost their job after "the recurrent practice of irregular activities during use of the Uber App."

Uber, in a statement emailed to The Register, insisted the four drivers "were only deactivated after manual reviews" of their activities but declined to provide details, citing Europe's privacy law.

"Uber provides requested personal data and information that individuals are entitled to," a company spokesperson said. "We will give explanations when we cannot provide certain data, such as when it doesn't exist or disclosing it would infringe on the rights of another person under GDPR."

The company maintains that the four were breaking its rules; the drivers deny doing so.

Calling Uber's response unsubstantiated, the complaint contends the taxi app biz has yet to establish that its employees understand its fraud fighting system's inputs well enough to predict the output or to explain the system's decisions. It further asserts that Uber is obliged to provide drivers with specific information about their supposed offenses.

The complaint argues that the deactivation messages sent by Uber were largely boilerplate and did not provide details about the fraud allegations. It also maintains the drivers were not afforded an opportunity to contest the charges.

"In short, the applicants ended up in a Kafkaesque situation, in which their rights were violated on the basis of unfounded allegations without being able to defend themselves against this," the complaint says.

The lawsuit seeks to have the drivers reinstated, compensated for lost ride fees and court costs, to clarify how Uber's automated decision making works, and to impose a penalty of €10,000 ($11,815) per day if Uber ignores the requested court orders. ®

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