Uber CEO says fingerprint-based background checks can be ‘discriminatory’

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick  and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft at the Boston College CEO Club in December.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft at the Boston College CEO Club in December.

Checking criminal backgrounds by using fingerprint records could be “discriminatory,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said, because local police records might leave out whether someone who was arrested for a crime was ultimately convicted or not.

Kalanick’s comments Tuesday at the Boston College CEO Club come as states, including Massachusetts, consider legislation that could force Uber and similar ride-hailing services to fingerprint their drivers. It also comes as Uber plans to add millions of drivers to its system in the US next year, vastly increasing the number of drivers who might pick up someone for a ride across town.

“In many states, the vast majority of the files they have only have the arrest record. They don’t have convictions. So if you’ve been arrested, you then can’t work. And we find that to be particularly discriminatory,” Kalanick said. “So then the question is, can you find ways to make sure that folks coming onto the system are safe while making sure that you’re not discriminating against people?”

Uber has become one of the most prominent private tech companies in the world by seeking to build the 21st-century equivalent of a global taxi service enabled by smartphones.

Since it was founded in 2009, San Francisco-based Uber has raised more than $8 billion from investors who have reportedly valued the company at more than $50 billion. Despite those staggering figures, Kalanick recently said that the company is “nowhere near” going public.

Kalanick’s appearance Tuesday comes as Uber’s increasingly popular and ubiquitous service faces a long list of regulatory and legal tie-ups in Boston and beyond.

In October, the company said that some 1.75 million people had taken 28 million trips in the area during the past four years. Drivers in Boston have earned about $200 million in the past year, Uber said.

But the company has clashed publicly with Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, who wants Uber to fingerprint its drivers when it performs background checks, ensure its drivers’ cars are properly inspected, and prominently label cars.

Uber has enlisted former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis to help bolster its own safety efforts. Davis, who originally was advising Uber as a consultant, was added to the company’s official US Safety Advisory Board last week.

Uber has said that its background checks are sufficient without fingerprinting, which it contends would be too logistically difficult to impose on its roster of drivers.

But critics have pointed to cases such as the arrest of Bryant Gilbert of Boston, a former Uber driver with a long record of driving offenses who was accused of dragging two police officers with his SUV earlier this month.

Uber said that it removed Gilbert from its system after learning of his criminal background. The Boston Police Department, which regulates taxicabs in the city, does not presently require cab drivers to be fingerprinted.

The state Legislature recently adjourned for the year without passing bills that would regulate ride-hailing services like Uber and its top competitor, Lyft.

Some of those bills would require background checks and commercial insurance policies for the services’ drivers. A competing proposal from Governor Charlie Baker would implement more state supervision but allow the companies to operate much as they currently do.

Uber also is battling a major civil lawsuit from prominent Boston labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who accuses the company of illegally treating its drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick speaks at the Boston College CEO Club lunch at the  Boston Harbor Hotel.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick speaks at the Boston College CEO Club lunch at the Boston Harbor Hotel.

And the company is fighting a federal lawsuit from Boston’s largest taxi company, which claims that Uber is violating state and city rules and deceiving customers.

Kalanick said Uber’s quick growth would continue, with plans to add millions of new drivers in the US next year. He said that could help many more people improve their income, even though he noted that half of the drivers in Uber’s on-demand mobile car-hiring service work less than 10 hours a week.

“We’re looking at the millions of drivers, literally multiple millions of drivers, that we’re bringing onto Uber next year in the US,” Kalanick said. “It’s a situation where you can really deal with the under-employment problem, the unemployment problem and wage stagnation for the average person that maybe just wants to get a leg up.”