Privacy risks for customers and workers in the gig economy

Posted on Sep 2, 2018 by Danica Sergison
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In the modern “gig economy”, workers and customers frequently rely on websites and phone apps to schedule, track and evaluate services.  The data gathered and shared through these platforms can contribute to convenience, trust, and the overall customer experience. However, whether you access these platforms as a worker or a customer, it’s important to understand what data you’re sharing, who has access to it, and how it can be used.

Riders, guests, and other customers

As a customer in the gig economy, it’s important to understand that your data is often shared not only with the corporate entity operating a given platform, but also with the workers who use it to find and accept work.  Depending on the platform that you’re using, this could include your name, email address, phone number, home address, work address, and any information that you provide as part of registration or profile creation, including photos.  You also provide information when you are actively using the service, including specific location and travel information.

Not all workers who use platforms to find work will be concerned with your privacy –  for example, there have been instances of Airbnb hosts recording guests with hidden cameras, and some ridesharing drivers with in-car cameras been found livestreaming their passengers.  Some privacy violations may also have more malicious intentions.  In April, Uber made changes to how the app stores location data from past trips to address rider safety concerns, including reports of Uber drivers stalking and harassing former passengers.  

Platforms, and the corporate entities that run them, may also misuse or fail to secure your data.  You don’t have to look far to find examples: Uber has been accused of deliberately misusing live customer location data on multiple occasions and in 2016, the personal information of over 20 million Uber drivers and riders was exposed in a security breach.

Workers in the gig economy

Contractors and employees who provide services on applications like Uber and Airbnb are often attracted to the ease of setup.  The gig economy can provide opportunities for some workers who face barriers in finding more traditional employment, including people with minimal domestic work history.  

Workers may not have to go through a formal, in-depth hiring process before offering services, but they are often expected to pass various background checks and provide photographs of themselves, copies of identification and licenses, and personal tax and financial information.  This vetting process may be a necessary part of a platform’s compliance with various legal and regulatory requirements, as well as part of an overall strategy for managing customer trust and safety. However, sharing this amount of detailed personal and financial information, especially through online platforms, can place workers at particular risk in the event of a privacy breach.  

By participating in the gig economy, workers often exchange privacy for opportunity, not just during the hiring process, but during day-to-day experiences.  Internet-enabled tracking and reporting is a large part of how a worker’s performance is measured and compensated. While some of this surveillance is explicit and consented to, not all workers are aware of what data is tracked by the platform or their employers.  As highlighted in a case study from Privacy International, this can be exacerbated by the precarious nature of employment in the gig economy.

Workers should also be prepared to have their information shared in the event that a conflict arises between them and their platform or employer, or where an insurance claim is made.  Data gathered through platforms may also be the target of discovery requests if a civil claim arises against a worker or platform, and may be requested by regulators responding to some of the industry disruptions arising in response to gig economy business models.  For example, Airbnb has recently filed a lawsuit attempting to prevent New York City from acquiring host data in an attempt to address housing shortages considered to be exacerbated by the rise in short-term rentals.

Inform yourself

When participating in the gig economy, either as a customer or a worker, it’s clear that the amount and sensitivity of data that we share on platforms can have wide-reaching and serious implications if misused or inadequately protected.   

Before participating in the gig economy, research your chosen platform’s history around privacy and data protection. Also, although it can be a struggle to read and understand privacy policies and applications, it’s important to make the effort when the risks can include threats to our most sensitive information, our personal safety, and our livelihoods.  

If you don’t understand what data a platform will be collecting from you and how it will be using and sharing that data with others, don’t use it.

About Danica Sergison

Danica is a Canadian lawyer, online community manager, and tech enthusiast. She writes about the law, privacy and the intersections between tech and social issues. Twitter: @DanicaSergison

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