Cabbies threaten to strike over GPS

New York City taxi drivers say that tracking them through the city is an invasion of their privacy. But don't cab owners have a right to know where their cars are?

Published July 26, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission wants to upgrade the city's cabs with a bit of high-tech gadgetry. The commission is requiring each of the city's 13,000 taxis to install GPS systems and touch-screen panels mounted in the back seat. The new technology will let people pay for a cab by credit card and map a route as they're going through the city.

On Wednesday, though, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, an advocacy group that represents more than 8,000 drivers, threatened to strike over the new gear. The drivers' worry: GPS route-mapping will turn passengers into backseat drivers, and it will let cab owners spy on drivers.

First to the fear of backseat driving: Hey, isn't that the passenger's right? You pay for a trip, but you don't want to be taken for a ride. Anyone who's ever visited NYC would agree that sometimes you just don't know what the driver's doing -- a map that shows you where you want to go and how you're headed there would be very helpful, and would likely straighten out crooked drivers. The taxi commission also says that GPS tracking will help people find lost or stolen property. If you report that you lost your iPhone in a cab that dropped you off at JFK Airport at 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday, the new system could pinpoint the cab you were in. (Good luck getting back your phone, though.)

Privacy is a trickier thing. The GPS system won't allow the public to track cabs through the city; it'll only let you track the cab you're sitting in. The taxi commission also says that it will not track drivers. But drivers say their bosses could use the system to follow them around town. "Why the [commission] wants to know when and where and what time a taxi driver has taken their kids to the park, or gone out to a restaurant, or to the movies, is beyond our understanding," Bhairavi Desai, the head of the Taxi Workers Alliance, told NY1.

I'd be on the cabbies' side if they were merely holding out for an Off button -- a way to shut down the GPS when the driver goes off duty and uses the cab in his personal life. But the drivers' demand that bosses be kept in the dark when cabs are on duty seems unreasonable. Cab drivers aren't public servants in the same way that cops are, but they do serve an important public need (which is why they're so heavily regulated), and thus have to accord to certain professional obligations. What's so bad about cab owners or the taxi commission monitoring drivers to make sure they're holding up those obligations?

After all, in just about every other profession, your boss expects to know exactly where you are when you're on the clock. Maybe this isn't a pleasant thing -- but hey, it's a job, not a vacation. GPS is simply extending a standard professional norm to cabbies. It's hard to see why they should be exempt.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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