Uber launches service to help with COVID-19 contact tracing: report

woman getting into back seat of car with Uber driver in the driver's seat
Uber's service provides health departments with data about who used Uber’s services and when and allows health agencies to urge affected drivers and users to quarantine. (Uber)

Ridesharing giant Uber has rolled out a service to give public health officials quick access to user data to track coronavirus cases, Reuters reported Monday.

The contact tracing service will be provided for free, and is reportedly being introduced to public health officials in all countries where Uber operates, according to Reuters. Company officials told Reuters information of either a driver or passenger can be accessed in a few hours. 

The service provides health departments with data about who used Uber’s services and when and allows health agencies to urge affected drivers and users to quarantine, company officials told reporters.

Uber has a protocol in place that it can disclose user information to public health agencies in an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury.

Since COVID-19 can be transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals, public health officials have identified contact tracing as a valuable tool to help contain its spread. The U.S. currently does not have a federally-funded contact tracing service in place.

A number of leading public health authorities, universities, non-governmental organizations and tech companies have been racing to develop methods to perform contact tracing through technology. For instance, Apple and Google launched COVID-19 contact tracing via smartphone apps in April but, so far, uptake has been slow. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was also working to roll out its own contact tracing app.

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As cities around the U.S. have begun requiring restaurants to take down diners' contact information for contact tracing, tech-engabled restaurant reservation apps such as Tock have reportedly also been tapped to help with contact tracing.

Ride-hailing data could play an important role in that effort, health officials and experts said, because it identifies a larger set of people outside the direct social circle of an infected individual, according to the Reuters article.

In January, Uber executives flew to Los Angeles to meet with the local health department and CDC officials to discuss how Uber’s data could best be used, Uber’s chief of global law enforcement Mike Sullivan told Reuters. Since the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., Uber has received approximately 560 coronavirus-related requests from public health officials across 29 countries, most of which were processed by the company within two hours, company officials told Reuters.

Out of those, 158 requests were filed by health authorities in nearly 40 locations around the United States.

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Uber has seen an increase in contact tracing requests from countries credited for their initial success in containing the virus, such as Australia and New Zealand, Sullivan said. He added that contact tracing was also much more coordinated in several European countries than in the United States, including in the UK.

Lyft said it provided data to U.S. and Canadian health officials through its Law Enforcement Request system, but declined to provide further details, citing privacy reasons, Reuters reported.