Uber rolls out blue checkmark system for rider verification in Chicago, 11 other cities

Uber rolls out blue checkmark system for rider verification in Chicago, 11 other cities

Uber launched a pilot program Thursday in Chicago and 11 other cities around the U.S. to verify riders on the app for increased safety for drivers.

The new safety feature means riders using Uber will be verified on the app and have a blue checkmark badge added to their profile for drivers to see, according to a news release. Most accounts will be verified automatically using details already on file, so users won’t have to take any additional steps to become verified.

For accounts that aren’t immediately verified, the user can upload a picture of a government-issued identification card, such as a driver’s license or passport, and verify their account that way. Uploaded documents will be encrypted and not show up on a user’s profile.

Heather Childs, chief trust and security officer for Uber, said in an interview Wednesday the new feature is “something drivers have been asking for” to promote safety on the platform.

“Drivers want to know more about the people who are entering and exiting their vehicle,” Childs said. “We want to know that riders are who they say they are, and we have to send a clear message that if you’re looking to do harm, Uber is not the place to do it.”

Ride-share drivers have long grappled with the potential dangers of the job. In December, a driver was shot and killed on the job in the Austin neighborhood. In February of last year, another driver was fatally shot while a passenger inside the vehicle was injured in the Little Italy neighborhood.

A group of local Uber and Lyft drivers have been advocating for an ordinance in the City Council to protect driver safety and wages that includes a demand for passenger verification. The Chicago Rideshare Living Wage and Safety ordinance is sponsored by Ald. Mike Rodriguez.

David Lavine, who has been working as an Uber driver in the Chicago area for over eight years, said the new rider verification is “not very meaningful” and verification shouldn’t be optional for riders but required.

“Not everyone is going to take the extra step if they have to, so then you still have people who are not verified and calling rides,” Lavine said. “Maybe the honest people who you didn’t have to worry about in the first place. If in a few months we can see that the number of Uber driver-related incidents is down, then that’s great, but I don’t see the benefit as of now.”

Lavine said the Uber feature already in place where riders can opt in to PIN verification should be universal. This gives riders the option to receive a unique four-digit PIN when requesting a ride, and the driver has to input that PIN in the app on their end for the ride to start.

Regardless, Lavine said it’s up to drivers to keep themselves safe on the job.

“The fact of life is that something can happen anywhere at any time,” he said. “Just being out on the road, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, we have to be prepared for anything. We can’t rely on Uber to keep us safe.”

Lenny Sanchez is a full-time organizer and works as the director of the Independent Drivers Guild of Illinois as well as a spokesperson for Justice for App Workers. Although Sanchez is no longer driving, he said he drove for Uber for about five years, half of which was full-time. He said he’s “seen it all,” from former Chicago Bear Brian Urlacher being a passenger in his car to having a gun put to his head while on the job.

While rider verification is a “great first step,” Sanchez said he thinks it’s coming far too late, after a number of drivers have been “shot, murdered, and their families have been devastated.”

Sanchez said drivers have been asking that riders be required to verify themselves when ordering a ride by taking a selfie that would be run through facial recognition software. The software is already built in to the app, Sanchez said, because when drivers log on to start work, they are prompted to confirm their identity by taking a selfie at the start and sometimes again during their shift.

“We know they have this technology,” he said. “All they have to do is flip the switch and have passengers do that as well, and that would be the greatest deterrent to people wanting to use the app to commit crimes. It would probably make them think twice before trying to target an innocent person trying to make a living.”

The selfies aren’t shared with passengers and in turn wouldn’t be shared with drivers, Sanchez said.

Uber has introduced several safety features in the past, including the ability to record an audio file during a ride in the event of a conflict. In 2021, the app rolled out a nationwide verification program for riders using anonymous forms of payment such as prepaid debit cards, gift cards or Venmo.

Uber uses “trusted third-party databases,” Childs said, to verify accounts automatically by checking details on the account such as names and phone numbers. Any changes to rider accounts, such as a new phone number, email address or a change to their name, could mean losing the account’s blue check. Riders can always reverify their account by uploading a photo of their ID.

In a statement, Justice for App Workers Midwest coalition said Uber needed a “much more stringent system,” where riders aren’t allowed to use the app until they’re verified. The group is also calling for deactivation protections and union rights, so drivers can report safety incidents without fear of retaliation and removal from the apps.

“App companies like Uber and Lyft need to sit down with drivers and ask us what we need to be safe on the road, because at the end of the day, we know what we need more than the executives in boardrooms,” the statement said.

Childs said the plan is to monitor the rollout of the rider verification pilot in the initial 12 cities to fix any bugs and get feedback, then ultimately launch nationwide. Other cities piloting the new safety feature beginning Thursday included Detroit and St. Louis.