This Change.org petition response shows how much Uber has changed

Uber has just responded to a group of Change.org petitioners protesting Uber’s background check policies in India, following the alleged rape of a passenger by a driver with an assault record. After the petition reached more than 63,000 signatures, Uber India safety lead Deval Delivala wrote a 600-word apology, explaining the steps the company is taking to improve its driver vetting process in the country.

Thursday night, the company said it will start doing its own background checks on drivers, instead of relying on government certification programs to vet the drivers adequately.

600 words might not seem too long to the average person, but by Uber’s standards this is a humble pie manifesto. It far exceeds the length of apologies or safety explanations Uber has sent to media in the past. I realized when rereading my old stories on Uber that it’s a complete 180 from the company’s response to assault incidents in 2013.

In the Change.org apology, Delivala covered everything from Uber’s reaction to the alleged rape (it was a “deeply sobering reminder that we must always be vigilant”) to what it taught Uber about background checks in India. She explained how the company is trying to strengthen its system, through things like a document verification system and an incident response team. She finished up with a bold promise: “We will repay [your] support with action and live up to the trust that you have placed in us.”

It may just be lip service, but it’s a new, refreshing kind of lip service. As recently as September, Buzzfeed found that Uber sent media the same two sentence response to any situation involving passenger safety, whether a rape, assault, or pedestrian injury. During one of Uber’s biggest scandals when an executive threatened to dig up dirt on journalists, CEO Travis Kalanick famously issued a 13 part tweet apology with very little apology actually included. After the rape of an Indian passenger in December, he published a blog post that was only 100 words.

These may be inadequate responses to terrible incidents, but they’re still far better than Uber’s old way of dealing with safety issues. In 2013, Uber used to claim it wasn’t responsible for its passengers’ safety. It didn’t think it was culpable for the actions of drivers or passengers on its platform (much like Facebook wouldn’t be responsible if one user threatened another on the site). Uber’s then-spokesperson told me that point blank after an SF driver hit a passenger. He said, “We’re not law enforcement…If law enforcement pursues this, we would cooperate. But we’re a technology platform that connects riders and providers, so it’s not our job to investigate.”

The Change.org apology shows how far the company has come. It still has major ethical issues and PR tactics to iron out, but at least it has started accepting responsibility for the incidents that occur through its service.

Uber’s first ever Global Head of Safety hints at improvements

Uber riders received an email Wednesday from the company’s new “Head of Global Safety,” Philip Cardenas. Cardenas introduced himself as a new hire whose team is reviewing Uber’s safety practices around the world to implement new technology and better procedures.

The company confirmed to me that although Uber has always had safety teams, Cardenas is the first person in this executive-level role. The company brought him on in September, but this appears to be his debut to the public. I’ve reached out to Uber to verify that.

Uber hired Cardenas away from Airbnb, where he oversaw safety practices for three years. According to his LinkedIn, Cardenas also spent time in the U.S. military, as an intelligence officer in Baghdad for a year in 2009.

In the blog post, Cardenas also previewed a range of safety procedures that Uber is considering. He said the company started a global safety procedure review in November and will be developing new technology and tactics to vet drivers carefully. For an overview on what’s wrong with Uber’s background checks, see our primer.

“We have more work to do, and we will do it,” Cardenas says. “As we look to 2015, we will build new safety programs and intensify others.”

Among the product roadmap he mentioned are “biometric sensors,” “voice verification,” lie detection tests, and a type of panic button for riders. Some will apply to certain countries but not others. For example, a polygraph test would be useful in India, where documents can be forged, but isn’t necessary for the states.

Cardenas didn’t elaborate on what constitutes biometric sensors, although it could be some version of fingerprinting. He didn’t provide more information on voice verification either, but I could see it being used to ensure drivers don’t hand off their Uber phones (and therefore app identification) to other unvetted drivers.

Cardenas’ hire was followed by a few tumultuous weeks where Uber’s background check system came under fire. I’m sure Uber has been keeping him busy.

A woman was allegedly raped by a driver in New Delhi, one who was already out on bail for a rape charge. The incident led Uber to suspend its Delhi operations until it reviewed its driver vetting process. Then, the SF and LA District Attorneys sued Uber for misleading people about the strength of its background checks.

CEO Travis Kalanick recently spoke about the issue with a Wall Street Journal reporter. He admitted that the company could do more to bolster its attempts.

“We can always invest more in safety and make sure we’re bringing way more safety than taxis,” Kalanick told the Wall Street Journal. “I think we’re already there, and the question is how much further can we go?” Cardenas’ hire is an indication that the company is serious about answering that question.

This story was updated as it developed.

Checkr gets $9M in the hot background checks market

Checkr is a competitor in the new hire background checks space, which is seeing a lot of growth due to the growth of freelance work platforms, like Homejoy, Instacart, and so on. The company has raised a round of $9 million, led by Accel Partners, with participation of Khosla Ventures, SV Angel, Data Collective and Google Ventures, and a long list of angels.

Checkr is unusual in that the company is providing an API to its customers — around 50 at the present time — who post information about new hires to Checkr’s background-checks-as-a-service offering, and a few days later Checkr posts results, which are based on both public and private data sources. These include criminal records, traffic violations, sex offender databases, and so on.

The reports cost $25-$35, based on degree of information desired.

Here’s an example record from the company website, in this case a positive search for someone on the US terrorist watch list:

Screenshot 2014-10-15 11.52.57

Checkr joins a small but extremely important group of companies that are providing businesses a critical service through APIs, like Stripe. The company has only four employees and is processing over 500 reports a day. Obviously the funding will allow them to expand considerably, and to compete more effectively with others, like Goodhire and BeenVerified. BeenVerified does have an API, but these older start-ups are organized around more traditional interactions with customers — through email and web pages.

The company was founded in April, and the founders met Accel partners at a Y Combinator Demo Day in August.