Kalamazoo shootings shine spotlight on Uber security

Should Uber tighten background checks after Kalamazoo?
Uber Kalamazoo shooting Dalton arraignment nr_00002106

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Story highlights

  • Jason Dalton drove Uber fares in between shooting eight in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a source says
  • Uber says it had no reason to believe Dalton posed a danger to anyone, and he had no criminal record
  • The car service app has been criticized in the past for how it screens its drivers

(CNN)You've got places to go, so you punch up your Uber app, tap to get a driver and minutes later, get into his car.

Uber wants to assure you that you're safe, but critics have raised questions about that promise in the past. Those questions were brought back into focus this week after police say an Uber driver shot to death six people in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Jason Brian Dalton -- who'd been working as an Uber driver since last month -- opened fire at random over the weekend. In addition to the six people killed, a mother and a 14-year-old girl were injured. None of the shooting victims was an Uber fare.
It's not clear whether Uber was his only employer, but a Progressive Insurance spokesman said Dalton was employed with the company until 2011.
Uber officials stressed they had no reason to believe Dalton posed a danger to anyone. The married father of two hadn't been in trouble with the law, and passengers seemed to like him, giving him a 4.73 (out of 5) rating.
But for some, the incident is prompting a closer look at how Uber operates.

What is Uber?

A decade ago, taxis were go-to options for people who wanted to get from here to there without taking a bus, train or car of their own. You'd call a cab, or stand alongside a road, raise your hand and hope a taxi pulled over.
Taxi service, of course, still exists. But it's been getting a run for its money, literally, of late.
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Uber is part of a broader and growing "sharing economy" that allows people to connect with other people for necessities like a place to stay or a way home. Airbnb, for instance, links up travelers with people who have an available house, condo or extra room. CouchSurfing.com doesn't even charge to bunk up with others (as long as the traveler would return the favor).
There are numerous ride-sharing services, such as Lyft and Shuddle (which focuses on families and children). Uber, though, is the most well-known and most successful.
It offers rides in cities from Abilene, Texas, to Zagreb, Croatia, in hundreds of communities in North America, Central America, South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and around Asia. Data provider PrivCo reported last summer that Uber is the most valuable (at $51 billion) startup company in the world.
And it's only grown since, with officials now estimating 3 million rides a day.
For customers, it's pretty simple. You download the Uber app, enter your location, pick what kind of vehicle you want, then get a heads-up there's a driver nearby (with the driver's picture and make of the vehicle). The whole trip will usually cost you less than a taxi.

How does Uber vet its drivers?

Uber drivers -- or "partners," as the San Francisco-based company calls them -- don't go through an extensive hiring process, with references and whatnot. There's not a set number of job openings that need to be filled. There aren't benefits such as 401(k)s and health insurance.
Those who drive Uber's profits are not company employees but independent contractors. Some have sued the company, calling this distinction unfair. Yet Uber touts the flexibility, lack of a boss and "good money" to prospective drivers, saying they can turn their personal car "into a money machine" in their spare time.
But not everyone who wants to drive for Uber can.
Yes, anyone can start the process by entering data online. A prospective driver has to provide his or her name, address, driver's license, Social Security number, proof of car insurance and vehicle registration.
Uber outsources background checks to a company called Checkr, which looks at local, county and federal databases for signs of past trouble (including sending someone to check files at county courthouses if those records aren't online).
If no problems come up, a person can get into Uber's system.
Taxi companies rely on fingerprint tests, making it possible to pull drivers' entire criminal history.
Uber's background check doesn't involve fingerprints, which company officials discounted as potentially faulty (including generating "false positives") to reporters Monday.
"We disagree that the process used by taxi companies is an inherently better system for screening drivers than our background checks," Uber has said. "The reality is that neither is 100% foolproof."
As to face-to-face interactions, Uber safety board member Ed Davis noted the potential for bias and the challenge of trying to ascertain a candidate's risk.
"The idea that simply by having someone look at someone, that they can determine that they're about to have a psychotic episode is a faulty theory," said Davis, a former Boston police commissioner. "... These are not things that can be foreseen."

Do these background checks work?

If a person has a history of violence or other dangerous behavior, a background check should theoretically turn that up.
But in Uber's case, red flags have slipped through the cracks, according to California authorities.
In December 2014, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced the filing of a "civil consumer protection action" against Uber, alleging "a variety of unlawful business practices." According to the filing, these include making "untrue or misleading representations regarding the quality of the background checks it performs on drivers and the measures it takes to ensure customer safety."
The California prosecutors followed up with a 62-page court filing in August that, among other things, laid out 25 instances in which Uber's background checks failed to turn up felonies, misdemeanor charges and citations in its drivers' pasts.
One Uber driver was convicted of second-degree murder in 1982. He spent 26 years in prison, was released in 2008 and applied to Uber. A background report turned up no records relating to his murder conviction. He gave rides to over 1,100 Uber customers.
Another driver was convicted on felony charges for lewd acts with children. He gave over 5,600 rides to Uber customers.
Yet another was convicted of burglary and identity theft.
That litigation is ongoing, according to a spokesman from Gascon's office.
In their Monday teleconference with reporters, Uber officials didn't reference specific past cases but did stand strongly behind their current vetting system. They talked about Kalamazoo, insisting that in Dalton's case, based on what information existed at the time, their process worked.
Uber's Security Chief Joe Sullivan added, "I don't think that we will change our screening processes for ... new driver partners as a result of this incident."
The company recently settled two lawsuits, agreeing to pay $28.5 million to some 25 million riders, and to avoid using certain safety language in advertising. Uber also agreed to rename its "Safe Ride Fee" a "Booking Fee." It's now up to a judge whether to approve the settlement.

Has Uber been tied to anything like what happened in Kalamazoo?

Uber hasn't been linked to mass shootings until now, though it has been tied to horrific episodes.
In December 2013, an Uber driver hit and killed a 6-year-old girl in San Francisco. He was later charged with vehicular manslaughter, while the girl's family filed (and later settled, according to SFGate.com) a lawsuit against Uber.
One year later, an Uber driver from Boston was charged with rape, kidnapping and assault for an alleged attack on a woman who'd called for a ride.
These kinds of incidents have also happened outside the United States, including in places where there's no easy way to do exhaustive, effective background checks or monitor the activities of every driver.
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New Delhi transport authorities, for example, temporarily banned Uber in December 2014 after a woman accused one of its drivers of raping her.
That driver, Shiv Kumar Yadav, was eventually convicted on four charges, including rape and putting a woman's life in danger, and was sentenced to life in prison.
Uber reacted by bolstering checks of its Indian drivers and installing a "panic button" in vehicles there, which threatened passengers can press to instantly alert police.
There are no plans to roll out similar technology in the United States. Uber officials would prefer that people use 911 instead.
"In the United States, 911 is the panic button," said Sullivan, Uber's chief of security. "... We don't want to try to replace that."
Uber passenger: Kalamazoo driver was 'surprisingly calm'
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That's what passenger Matthew Mellen did after an erratic, nerve-wracking drive with Dalton on Saturday afternoon, before the eight victims were shot.
Mellen reached out to Uber as well, and Sullivan acknowledged the company was "contacted by several passengers, including one complaining about dangerous and erratic driving" who'd already called 911.
That didn't mean Uber excised Dalton from its system. In fact, a source close to the investigation said he kept on driving, picking up fares between killings.
"This wasn't hurried in any way, shape or form," Kalamazoo County Prosecuting Attorney Jeffrey Getting said of the three shootings, two of which were caught on video. "They were intentional, deliberate and ... coldly done."
Uber's security chief said drivers can be suspended immediately if there's alleged violence. The company is more deliberate for bad driving complaints, reaching out to get the driver's take before taking action.
"When (someone drives) hundreds of rides, they will sometimes receive negative feedback," Sullivan said. "And we don't want to overreact to one piece of feedback."
Uber officials noted reviews of Dalton's more than 100 rides had been largely positive. Moreover, there was nothing official in his past to suggest he'd hurt anyone.
"As the local police made clear, the perpetrator had no criminal record," Sullivan said. "And if there's nothing on someone's record, then no background check is going to raise a flag.
"As this case has shown, past behavior may not accurately predict how people will behave in the future."