Uber looks at biometrics for rider safety after Boston rape charge

Uber has announced plans to introduce biometrics, voice recognition, and new driver screening technology, as US authorities charge a Boston-based Uber driver with allegedly raping a passenger earlier this month.

A Boston-based Uber driver has been charged with allegedly sexually assaulting a passenger on December 6, just two weeks after an Uber driver in India was pulled up for allegedly raping a passenger.

The Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas announced on December 17 that 46-year-old Alejandro Done, who works as a driver for Uber, had been arraigned on several charges in connection with a sexual assault.

While the District Attorney has stressed that it is not yet known whether the defendant used information he gained through his position as an Uber driver to target his alleged victim, the charges he faces include rape, assault to rape, kidnapping, and two counts of assault and battery.

According to authorities, Uber has been cooperative and provided assistance with the ongoing investigation of the alleged attack, which authorities say took place on December 6.

"We allege that this defendant picked up a young woman, presenting himself as the driver for a ride-sharing service, and then drove her to a secluded location where he beat and sexually assaulted her," said Ryan in a statement. "This alleged predator took advantage of a young woman who trusted that he was who he portrayed himself to be and exploited her vulnerability once he had her in his car."

Ryan said that although ride-sharing services such as Uber are an increasing convenience, users of such services should take precautions to ensure their safety.

"Every day, people are engaging car services for their transportation needs, and placing their trust in them for their personal safety and security," said Ryan. "While these services are a convenience, and often a necessity of modern urban living, we urge everyone to take precautions to ensure they are as safe as possible.

"Confirm that the car you are getting into is the particular one you have ordered. Be cautious if the driver is asking you to do something that you understand to be against company policy, as when they request you pay by cash when you understand that the company receives payment by credit card," she said.

Uber spokesperson Kaitlin Durkosh said: "This is a despicable crime, and our thoughts and prayers are with the victim during her recovery. Uber has been working closely with law enforcement and will continue to do everything we can to assist their investigation."

The charges come less than two weeks after the Delhi government in India banned Uber from operating in the city after one of its drivers, 32-year-old Shiv Kumar Yadav, was pulled up by local authorities for allegedly raping a 26-year-old female passenger earlier this month.

According to reports, Indian police said Uber did not conduct a background check on the driver, who was working for the company while on bail for multiple charges including assault, robbery, and rape.

In fact, according to The New York Times, other Uber drivers in San Francisco, Florida, and Chicago have faced charges of assault on passengers. Meanwhile, The Boston Globe reports that this latest charge is the fourth time this month that an Uber customer has reported assault by a driver.

However, on December 17, Uber talked up its safety measures, including its two-way rating system, driver detail information transparency, and multi-layered driver background check and screening process.

It also outlined plans to develop and introduce a host of new measures to better screen potential drivers and increase rider safety.

In a blog post, Uber's head of global safety Phillip Gardenas said that the company was working on the development of biometrics and voice verification systems for enhanced driver screening, along with the potential use of polygraph exams and global screening processes to review potential drivers.

"Of course, no background check can predict future behaviour, and no technology can yet fully prevent bad actions," said Gardenas. "But our responsibility is to leverage every smart tool at our disposal to set the highest standard in safety we can. We will not shy away from this task."

Uber also announced on December 18 that it would be suspending its service in Portland, Oregon for three months from December 21, as the city's regulators work to develop local laws around taxi and ride-sharing apps.

The company said that it had received a commitment from Portland officials to create a regulatory framework within which to operate within the next three months.

However, if regulations are not available by April 9, the city authorities will allow ride-sharing companies to operate while they continue to pursue a long-term solution, according to Uber.

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