Is it legal to livestream unsuspecting Uber and Lyft passengers?

Privacy laws are still "drawn up for the age when we had handheld cassette recorders."
by Tim Stelloh /

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Uber and Lyft on Sunday dropped a Missouri driver believed to have livestreamed hundreds of rides to thousands of followers without telling his passengers, according to a report published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

NBC News hasn't independently verified the report, but in statements, Lyft said it had "deactivated" the driver's account, while Uber said it had ended its "partnership" with him. Twitch, the livestreaming platform that Jason Gargac, 32, is reported to have used, wouldn't comment on specific users but said in a statement that it "does not allow people to share content that invades others' privacy."

Would it have been legal and ethical for Gargac to livestream unsuspecting passengers' rides to what the Post-Dispatch reported was about 4,500 followers — followers who, among other things, rated those passengers' looks?

Gargac didn't respond to messages seeking comment, but he told the Post-Dispatch that he used the livestream for safety and for what the newspaper described as "people watching."

"I try to capture the natural interactions between myself and the passengers," he told the Post-Dispatch.

Missouri, like most states, requires consent from only one party to a recording for it to be legal. Daxton Stewart, a journalism professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, who's studied the legal implications of livestreaming, said in an interview that no criminal case could be brought against Gargac in Missouri.

A civil action might be successful if the livestream revealed something private, such as a sexual encounter or medical information, and caused harm, he said. It was under this law that Hulk Hogan successfully sued Gawker and won a $140 million legal battle, Stewart said.

But the plaintiff would be able to sue only the driver, he said, because Lyft and Uber include arbitration clauses in their terms of service that prevent lawsuits, including class actions.

"You don't go to court," Stewart said. "It's a private decision."

The laws in most states are still "drawn up for the age when we had handheld cassette recorders," he added. "That's where we are — without civil liability and criminal law, we're left to trust each other not to misbehave."

While the livestreaming may have been legal, it was "clearly unethical," said Donald Heider, founder of Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University in Chicago.

"He should have been notifying people and giving them the option to opt in or opt out," he said.

That Gargac may have profited from people's images — the Post-Dispatch said he made about $3,500 from Twitch subscriptions, donations and tips — without telling them was questionable, Heider said. But the privacy implications were significant.

What if you're a minor, he said, or you're not in a good state of mind or you skip work to go to a baseball game and your boss sees you? What if you're seen having an affair? Or what if the livestream reveals someone to be gay when that person hasn't publicly come out?

Heider recalled the case of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide in 2010 after his roommate livestreamed Clementi's sexual encounter with a man.

"You could definitely out someone in that scenario who is not out," he said.

Heider said that he has encouraged tech companies to hire ethicists to grapple with such issues but that so far he has seen them respond only to specific events.

"We have new technology unleashed every day," he said. "But the technology has not spent enough time thinking about the implications of the technology."

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