GrabTaxi, Uber block phone contact numbers to ensure privacy

A man wearing an Uber cap at the official launch of Uber operations in Canberra on Oct 30. PHOTO: EPA

SINGAPORE - What was supposed to be a routine 20-minute journey home with a private-hire car for Ms L. Tan last month turned out to be a harrowing ride with a flirtatious driver who not only asked her out to lunch, but also sent the digital marketing consultant a text at 2am to wish her goodnight.

"I like friendly drivers but there needs to be some boundaries... getting his text message is the most disturbing part. I'm still trying to get over it," said the 25-year-old, who has stopped using third-party ride-booking apps like GrabTaxi and Uber for now and gone back to ComfortDelGro's cab-booking app for "peace of mind".

But such distressing experiences in which passengers receive unwanted calls are less likely to happen now as ride-booking services tighten privacy measures by blocking the real mobile numbers of commuters and drivers to ensure both parties do not misuse personal details.

Last week, Uber implemented its number-masking technology that will "disguise" personal numbers so Singapore Uber drivers who call from their mobile devices will not be able to see the customer's mobile number and vice versa.

Instead, they will automatically be routed through an encrypted number.

Drivers and riders will then communicate through "dummy" numbers, essentially a forwarding number, designed to block the true caller IDs of both the driver and passenger.

This system, which has been rolled out in the United States and most recently in India, is meant to prevent drivers from making unsolicited contact with passengers.

GrabTaxi and its private-hire car service GrabCar began blocking the real numbers of drivers and passengers more than a month ago.

It said in a statement then that it spent about $6 million on the number-masking technology as well as to train and educate its drivers across the region.

An Uber spokesman said implementing disguised phone numbers has brought "an additional layer of security to protect personal contact information, which is something our community has been requesting for a while".

The stepped-up measures come on the back of privacy concerns that app companies could misuse information about users, for instance by tracking them, as well as concern for the safety of passengers, particularly as the popularity of taxi-matching apps is on the upswing.

GrabTaxi said it has had nine million downloads and plies 160,000 vehicles across six countries and 28 cities in South-east Asia.

The Uber spokesman told The Straits Times the number and frequency of passengers or drivers getting unwanted calls "is very small" in comparison to the total number of safe rides it facilitates daily.

There are some Uber riders, however, who said the technology has made it harder to get in touch with drivers when they need to .

"It becomes very troublesome to try to find the driver, especially when you are in a location that cannot be found very easily," said passenger Leslie Soon, who uses GrabTaxi at least three times a week to shuttle between work and home.

For Ms Tan, she is also likely to go back to her daily habit of using ride-booking apps - under a fake name.

"It has become so convenient and I'm sure it's just one black sheep among the drivers."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2015, with the headline GrabTaxi, Uber block phone contact numbers to ensure privacy. Subscribe