For some safety experts, Uber’s self-driving taxi test isn’t something to hail

Washington Post:

Even so, the effort is raising concern from safety experts who say the technology has major limitations that can be very dangerous. Self-driving cars have trouble seeing in bad weather. Sudden downpours, snow and especially puddles make it difficult for autonomous vehicles to detect lines on pavement and thereby stay in one lane.

Walker Smith added that self-driving cars have sometimes confused bridges for other obstacles. “People need to understand both the potential and the limitations of these systems, and inviting them inside is part of that education,” he said.

The vehicles also have difficulty understanding human gestures — for example, a crosswalk guard in front of a local elementary school may not be understood, said Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, at a Senate hearing in March. She recommended that the vehicles not be allowed to operate near schools.

Then there’s a the human factor: Researchers have shown that people like to test and prank robots. Today, a GPS jammer, which some people keep in their trunks to block police from tracking them, will easily throw off a self-driving car’s ability to sense where it is, Cummings said.

Current self-driving cars often cannot see which lane they’re in, if it’s raining. They don’t understand what a bridge is versus other road-terrain. They don’t understand what a cross-walk guard is. And they are reliant on a notoriously brittle location technology.

What can go wrong with testing them in urban centres then, exactly?


Is Uber’s rider database a sitting duck for hackers?

Is Uber’s rider database a sitting duck for hackers?:

Imagine for a second that your job is to gather intelligence on government officials in Washington, or financiers in London, or entrepreneurs in San Francisco. Imagine further that there existed a database that collected daily travel information on such people with GPS-quality precision– where they went, when they went there and who else went to those same places at the same times.

Now add that all this location data was not held by a battle-hardened company with tons of lawyers and security experts, such as Google. Instead, this data was held by a start-up that was growing with viral exuberance – and with so few privacy protections that it created a “God View” to display the movements of riders in real-time and at least once projected such information on a screen for entertainment at a company party.

“It’s a huge trove of data that could be used for a whole number of uses,” said Christopher Parsons, a digital privacy expert at Citizen Lab, a research center at the University of Toronto.



Uber’s ‘God View’ Was Once Available to Drivers

Uber’s ‘God View’ Was Once Available to Drivers:

I reached out to Chris Parsons, a cybersurveillance researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, to discuss Uber’s God View and the ramifications for users.

“Uber understandably has infrastructure in place to monitor where its drivers are and a business case can be made for some degree of monitoring of how, and how often, their clients use the service,“ he said. “However, such data must be carefully controlled with strict security, privacy, and access safeguards. At this point it doesn’t appear that such have been stringently developed or applied.”

“We know that national security and intelligence agencies are deeply interested in where people travel to, and in understanding the movement patterns of individuals regardless of their being identified as ‘targets’ of government surveillance,” Parsons continued. “And Uber’s seeming failure to secure its data—to the point where developers have already found ways of querying the data by reverse-engineering Uber’s mobile client software—would suggest that an intelligence or security service that was sufficiently motivated could do the same.”

“There’s no evidence that such a security or intelligence service has ‘cracked’ Uber but past Snowden revelations have revealed that the NSA and its partners are voracious collectors of all kinds of tracking data,” Parsons concluded. “There’s no reason why these agencies wouldn’t be as interested in Uber’s data as other services’ data that could identify where, and how often, people travel around their cities and around the world.”