Uber's new patent wants to spot drunk passengers

If you’re too drunk to drive, you may also one day be too drunk for an Uber. This month, the ride-sharing company seeks to patent technology to determine a passenger’s level of sobriety, according to a new patent application filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Uber said it has no immediate plans for what it would do with the technology, but the idea itself raises thorny ethical questions about how much health data a private company like Uber should have on us.

Typos and how you hold your phone would signal your sobriety levels

For those of us who have had a few to drink, the rise of ride-share giants like Uber has made exiting the party safer and with no one the wiser about how many cocktails we have just downed. The patented technology would no longer keep your sobriety level a private matter. The technology would make judgments based on the angle of how you hold your phone and how many typos you make to predict whether you are drunk, and change your ride experience accordingly.

If you never make a typo, and suddenly you can’t stop making ones in your request for a ride, the system would interpret that behavior as unusual. The tech would use your past trip behavior to “identify how the user activity of the current trip request deviates from previous (or ‘normal’) behavior for that user.” If the technology finds your behavior to be very unusual, “the user may not be matched with any provider, or limited to providers with experience or training with users having an unusual state,” the patent states.

The benefits of Uber having this information are clearer to see. No driver enjoys having to deal with belligerently drunk passengers, and getting a heads-up could help drivers make safer choices. The benefits for users are less clear. Is this information that you feel safe with Uber having? The company does not have the best track record with safekeeping sensitive data. In 2014, Uber’s data breach exposed the private information of more than 100,000 drivers. Uber also once had a “God View” feature to monitor customers in real time without their consent.

In a statement, Uber said is it still deciding on the future of its patent: “We are always exploring ways that our technology can help improve the Uber experience for riders and drivers. We file patent applications on many ideas, but not all of them actually become products or features.”