Your Private Driver: Voice-operated Security Breaches and Other Things

This is a returning and soon to be weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. 

This week’s column is going to tackle a few different topics, since there’s a lot going on in the general tech world that’s relatable to how we work and play in the rideshare world.

OK Google, ask Siri where Alexa went

Last week there were a lot of conversations on DTNS about voice-operated assistants and how they fit into our lives. The general consensus seemed to be that talking to a box that controls your lights and adds things to your shopping list is cool, but talking to your phone is just dumb. Well, unless you’re driving. With hands-free laws becoming the norm in many states, simply playing with even a dash-mounted phone to perform tasks like getting directions or playing a podcast while driving can get you pulled over by an attentive officer of the law.

This is where voice assistants come in. Google is my voice assistant of choice, only in part because I have an Android phone; at home my wife and I have devices that use Cortana, Siri, and Alexa in addition to Google, and I’ve found that Google is the best at recognizing what I’m actually saying. Alexa comes a very close second, while Cortana isn’t accurate enough to overcome its seemingly limited ability to actually do anything. Siri’s voice recognition is so bad that the service is completely useless to me; my wife even says “OK Google” when she talks to her iPhone 6. That could just be a personal problem, since plenty of people still love them some Siri, so I digress.

Anyway, while driving I’ve found using a voice assistant to be great for getting directions, calling or texting riders, playing music, and answering random trivia questions. Being able to solve a passenger debate by saying “OK Google, what year did Baby Got Back come out?” can be quite the crowd pleaser. I’m waiting for the days when I can use voice commands to perform tasks within the Uber and Lyft apps like being able to accept or decline an incoming ride request without taking my hands off the wheel, or better yet have the ride information spoken aloud to me so I don’t have to worry about glancing at the phone to make that decision.

In Mother Russia, Uber hacks you!

The Reply All podcast recently described a situation that is becoming familiar for an increasing number of Uber account holders. Basically, your account has been compromised and someone in Russia (or Morocco or Thailand or…) is taking rides on your dime. Uber’s non-existent support likely won’t be any help, so your only real recourse is to dispute the charges with your credit card company. This will have the side effect of getting you banned from the Uber platform, which is not a good thing if you don’t have a competitor (like Lyft) in your area or a spare non-VOIP mobile phone number to use.

While the cause of these hacks has yet to be conclusively determined, one of the popular theories is that people are using the same username and password combination with their Uber accounts that they used for other services that have been compromised. As was also discussed on DTNS, one of the biggest security flaws in existence today is humans not using unique passwords for every website or service they use. The problem is that we likely use dozens if not hundreds of internet-based services from email and social media to banking and shopping to streaming video and gaming. No human being can remember that many unique username and password combinations. The recommended solution is, naturally, a password manager. They do take some effort to use, especially if you’re trying to use one across your phone, tablet, desktop, and Xbox One, but that effort pales in comparison to trying to get a new Uber account. Or you could try Lyft, just saying.

Blue Cross, Blue Uber

Okay so this one actually didn’t make DTNS headlines, but it’s interesting nonetheless. In Laguna Beach, CA, the city will be partnering with Uber to provide transportation to and from medical appointments for seniors and the disabled. The article from the local newspaper Orange County Register has more details, but in short seniors will be getting heavily discounted rides to replace spotty bus service in the suburban area, and drivers will also have to undergo stricter background checks.

Unfortunately what isn’t addressed is the reliability of the service in that area. In most metro areas rideshare vehicles become a lot more sparse the farther away you are from the center of the city. The greater Los Angeles area doesn’t exactly follow this pattern due to its decentralized sprawl (it’s actually split into four different markets), but there are still pockets that are busier than others. Laguna Beach isn’t typically one of those busy pockets. In non-busy areas, riders are faced with longer wait times, higher cancellation rates, and a lot more questions about whether or not your trip is in the “right” direction. In short, there’s no guarantee that when you press the button on your app, a driver will show up to take you where you want to go, no extra conditions required. This type of reliability is required when people are depending on a rideshare service to replace or supplement public transit, which if nothing else will pick up anyone willing to pay the fare.

This is going to be an interesting experiment in how rideshare may shape the future of transit planning, and while not as sexy as Elon Musk’s tunnels, this experiment will actually have people using it.

Seriously, anyone who thinks The Boring Company has a future in Los Angeles needs to remember the decades-long battle over the completion of the 710 freeway. An underground Hyperloop would be a more realistic idea. But again, I digress.

Sekani Wright is an experienced Lyft driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!