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Grab told: Stop test on video, audio recording of passengers

MANILA, Philippines — The country’s privacy watchdog has suspended a pilot test of Grab Philippines to keep video and audio recordings of its passengers, noting that the company was concerned more about its own commercial risks than the privacy of its customers.

The National Privacy Commission (NPC) has also suspended the selfie verification program of Grab for the same reason.

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These three initiatives, the NPC said, “may endanger the privacy rights of the riding public.”

The issue marks another conflict between regulators and Grab, which remains the biggest player in the local ride-hailing market after it bought out Uber, its main rival, back in 2018, and triggered competition concerns that were not always dealt with.

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In this case, the personal data collected by Grab is supposed to help authorities piece together an incident in cases of disputes between driver and passenger, giving the police, upon request, a proper picture of what actually happened during the ride.

The video recording system gives employees in the Grab office a front-row seat to what is happening inside a vehicle, but only when the driver prompts them through an emergency button.

Risk to passengers

Despite the good intentions, the NPC noted how these efforts failed to strike a balance between security interests and privacy rights.

Moreover, Grab had not given much thought to the risks its passengers would be exposed to, according to the NPC, and that “only the risks faced by the company were taken into account.”

“While this Commission believes that the security of passengers and drivers is a primordial concern, their [passengers’] privacy rights must not be disregarded,” it said.

In its cease-and-desist order, the NPC cited a document submitted by Grab called a privacy impact assessment.

In the document, Grab evaluated risks under four main categories, namely: “operational downtime, people, reputational damage[,] and financial loss.”

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The risks cited by the company led NPC to conclude that Grab had not given much thought to the risks its passengers would be exposed to, and that “only the risks faced by the company were taken into account.”

Deficiencies

The NPC sent the cease-and-desist order to Grab on Tuesday, a few days after the NPC flagged the company’s deficiencies in a notice issued on Jan. 31. The notice came about a week after Grab had already begun its pilot test.

The pilot test began on Jan. 13 and covered 180 Grab vehicles in Metro Manila for two to six weeks. Half of the cars were to be equipped with cameras inside the vehicles while the rest would be equipped with in-car audio recorders.

In launching its pilot run, Grab said the recordings would be another “layer of security” for both drivers and passengers. Similar programs were launched by Grab in Jakarta and Uber in the United States.

Grab said that they were compliant with the Data Privacy Act, but the NPC said the company failed to state its legal basis for processing the collected data.

Based on the documents submitted by Grab, NPC also said the company was not able to establish whether the benefits outweighed the risks, and whether these programs were the only way to achieve their objective.

Grab had previously tried to play down concerns, saying riders could always opt not to be recorded without incurring any penalty since they would be informed about the recordings beforehand.

If a passenger consents to being recorded, Grab said the audio recording would be encrypted and stored in its data base for seven days and the videos for 10 hours.

While this much is true, the NPC said that the details on how to use this opt-out mechanism were “not sufficiently communicated to passengers.”

NPC said it was also not clear if and how the data processing would be affected once consent was withdrawn.

The NPC gave the company 15 days from Jan. 31 to comply with the remedial measures it had imposed. The agency did not specify what those measures were.

The cease-and-desist order, on the other hand, would remain in effect for each of Grab’s programs, until the company has fully resolved the deficiencies flagged by the NPC.

The NPC clarified that the order was not a penalty, but an opportunity to fully comply with the law.

“The move, in effect, secures the riding public from unwanted privacy exposure and in the same manner enables the company to modify its system to be compliant with the DPA,” the NPC said.

Safety technology

A Grab spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday that the selfie feature and the pilot test were “introduced as pioneering safety technology features with the aim of further protecting our ride hailing community.”

“These features follow the legal criteria for lawful processing of data,” the statement read.

“However, we recognize the mandate of the NPC to protect user privacy. Passenger selfie feature and audio

and video recording pilot tests have been temporarily suspended as we work with NPC to address their concerns,” Grab said.

“We will fully cooperate with NPC in providing necessary supporting documents to adhere to their standards, implement additional corrective measures, and ensure that NPC’s expectations and our approach for safety are mutually understood,” it added.

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TAGS: Grab video and audio recording, National Privacy Commission, personal data
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