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Uber Driver Fired For Secretly Filming Female Passengers And Having Internet ‘Rate’ Them

 

On a recent Saturday night, two women in their early 20s called an Uber from Ballpark Village in downtown St. Louis. Within minutes “Jason” arrived driving a black Chevrolet Silverado. They climbed into the pickup’s back seat, illuminated by purple lights.

The driver, a bearded man in his 30s, was friendly. The women asked where he went to high school. They joked about friends they were going to meet at a bar across town. But there was something the women didn’t know: Their driver was streaming a live video of them to the internet, and comments from viewers were pouring in. The blonde is a 7, the brunette a 5, someone with the username “DrunkenEric” commented. “She doesn’t sit like a lady though,” another viewer added. “This is creepy,” said another.

The women are among hundreds of St. Louis area Uber passengers who have been streamed online without their knowledge by their driver, Jason Gargac, 32, of Florissant.

Gargac has given about 700 rides in the area since March through Uber, plus more with Lyft. Nearly all have been streamed to his channel on Twitch, a live video website popular with video gamers where Gargac goes by the username “JustSmurf.” Passengers have included children, drunk college students and unwitting public figures such as a local TV news reporter and Jerry Cantrell, lead guitarist with the band Alice in Chains. First names, and occasionally full names, are revealed. Homes are shown. Passengers have thrown up, kissed, talked trash about relatives and friends and complained about their bosses in Gargac’s truck. All the while, an unseen online audience watches, evaluating women’s bodies, judging parents and mocking conversations.

Gargac sees nothing wrong with it. To him, it’s a form of virtual people-watching — one that can bring an income. “I try to capture the natural interactions between myself and the passengers — what a Lyft and Uber ride actually is,” he said in a recent interview with the Post-Dispatch. But his channel raises legal and ethical questions about privacy as technology allows videos of unsuspecting people to spread online for instant, worldwide viewing.

“I feel violated. I’m embarrassed,” said one passenger tracked down by the Post-Dispatch. She asked not to be identified to avoid being connected to the footage. “We got in an Uber at 2 a.m. to be safe, and then I find out that because of that, everything I said in that car is online and people are watching me. It makes me sick.”

A Saturday night

Gargac, a bearded Army veteran in a baseball hat, speaks into a camera mounted on his windshield while he waits outside Ballpark Village. He had gone over 30 minutes without passengers and his stream was losing viewers. “This better be (expletive) content, I swear to God. This better be (expletive) content, that’s all I’m saying,” Gargac says as the two women approach. “I mean, the blond girl looks kind of cute, if they’re together. The blonde is cute. The one who ordered is not.”

His stream shows the women getting in the car. They compliment the purple LED lights, not knowing they serve to illuminate passengers for the camera. They say they are going to a bar across town, and one of the women tells Gargac she has a crush on a friend she’s going to meet. “I really have this issue of telling Uber drivers my whole life story,” she says. “It’s OK,” Gargac replies, laughing. Soon Gargac’s channel gets a new follower, and viewers pick up. Crass jokes fill the chat. Someone claims dibs on the blonde.

The women are dropped off, and the night continues. A couple get a ride from a Cardinals game to an upscale suburban neighborhood, as viewers speculate about the value of their home. Later, a seemingly intoxicated young woman slumps over in the back seat as a man prods her to see if she is OK. He probably won’t get lucky now, and if he does, she won’t remember it, a viewer says. In the last ride of the night, a young woman cries in the back seat. The audience notes her bra is showing.

It’s a typical night of streaming for Gargac, who speaks to viewers between rides like a friend, or their host for the evening. He comments on passengers and answers questions from his audience about his life as a driver. “Love you all, and thank you all for the support,” he tells his fans before signing off.

Passengers speak

In dozens of hours of footage reviewed by the Post-Dispatch, very few people seem to notice the camera. A few who asked were told by Gargac that he was recording for safety. He rarely specifies that he is streaming live. The Post-Dispatch was able to identify about a dozen of Gargac’s passengers using information disclosed in archived videos of the livestreams. Passengers from five different rides responded to inquiries from a reporter. None knew they had been livestreamed. All said they would not have consented if they had known. The passengers reached by the Post-Dispatch did not want to be identified, to avoid connection to the often embarrassing videos, which include insulting and sexual comments made by Twitch viewers.

Gargac said he enlisted a team of Twitch users, including his wife, to remove any racist, homophobic or aggressively sexual sentiments. “Saying she was an 8 out of 10 or a 9 out of 10, that’s cringe-y to a point, but I don’t think it goes over a line,” he said. “But if you go over the line of like: ‘Oh, I’d do such dirty things to her,’ something like that, I don’t want that at all.” Still, his channel’s chats have been full of sexual content and edgy humor directed at the passengers. “It’s dehumanizing,” one female passenger said.

Several passengers told the Post-Dispatch that after learning about Gargac’s stream, they complained to Uber. The company gave them a $5 credit, and a promise that they would not be paired with Gargac as a driver.

Lyft and Uber initially released prepared responses to questions from the Post-Dispatch about the livestream, simply noting the practice is legal because in Missouri only one party to a conversation needs to consent to a recording. In this case, that is Gargac. “Driver partners are responsible for complying with the law when providing trips, including privacy laws,” an Uber spokesman wrote earlier this month. “Recording passengers without their consent is illegal in some states, but not Missouri.” A Lyft spokesman echoed that response, saying drivers are required to follow local laws, “including with regard to the use of any recording device.”

The companies did not respond to follow-up questions over the course of a week about the ethics of livestreaming customers without their knowledge. After this story was published, an Uber spokeswoman said the company suspended Gargac following a review of his videos. “The troubling behavior in the videos is not in line with our Community Guidelines,” the new statement read. “The driver’s access to the app has been removed while we evaluate his partnership with Uber.” Early Monday, the company said it had ended its relationship with Gargac entirely. Uber prohibits inappropriate or disrespectful behavior by drivers, including comments on appearance or sexual remarks, the statement said.

Lyft also deactivated Gargac as a driver, a company spokesperson said in a statement early Sunday. And neither company has answered questions about policies regarding drivers livestreaming. Twitch, the website that hosts the livestream videos, did not respond to multiple requests for comment until after this story was published. In a statement Saturday, a spokesman said Twitch would remove content if it received a complaint from someone whose privacy was violated.

Gargac’s Twitch channel disappeared from the website Saturday. The company said it does not comment on specific violations, and it was unclear why the channel it was down. Before it disappeared, the channel had about 4,500 followers and some 100 subscribers who paid $5 a month to support Gargac’s efforts. Gargac said he has earned about $3,500 off Twitch users, including subscriptions, donations and tips called “bits.” That’s on top of about $150 to $300 from fares on an average night.

‘I can do it, but better’

Gargac was not the first to livestream Uber and Lyft rides on Twitch.

The website, which Amazon bought for about $1 billion in 2014, is best known as a place to watch people playing video games live. The site’s average total viewership rivals prime time for cable channels like CNN and MSNBC, according to reporting in the New York Times. Some of the most popular gaming streamers have made millions of dollars. Gargac’s videos fit into a newer “IRL,” or “In Real Life,” section that encourages users to stream their life outside of games. Gargac became a fan of other IRL streams from Uber and Lyft drivers, including Jaystreazy and Cinnabarcorp in California and Eclecticninja in Wisconsin. He was intrigued by the unexpected interactions and the mystery of who might get into the car next. He decided to try it. “I like challenges, so I felt like I can do it, but better,” he said. Gargac began driving for Uber, and occasionally Lyft, in early March. He was livestreaming all of his rides by the end of that month. He typically drove on weekend nights because, he said, the bar crowd made for the most entertaining rides.

Gargac’s “JustSmurf” channel took a different approach than the other livestreams. First, there’s the equipment. Gargac says he invested about $3,000 in technology for his vehicle. There are two cameras about the size and shape of a deck of cards mounted on the windshield that face both outside and in. A 12-button control panel allows him to toggle between camera views as he drives. A data setup keeps his livestreams connected. But Gargac points to a bigger difference: Most other Uber and Lyft streamers tell their passengers they are on camera.

Those drivers’ streams show they often lose passengers who refuse to get in the car. Gargac says that at first he also informed his passengers he was streaming, but he noticed most either refused to speak or acted out for the camera. “I didn’t like it. It was fake. It felt produced,” he said. He decided he did not need passengers’ consent.

 

Is this legal?

Gargac says he hasn’t broken any laws because Missouri is a one-party consent state. There may still be some legal recourse for his passengers, but any case would face obstacles, said Chip Stewart, a professor at Texas Christian University who has published research on the privacy implications of livestreaming. Missouri does not criminalize parties who record their own interactions, unless it includes a photo or video of someone who is nude or partly nude without that person’s consent. Civil precedent in the state does allow people to sue for their privacy rights if they are recorded without consent when they have what the law calls “a reasonable expectation of privacy.” It’s not clear whether courts would find the back of an Uber to be a place with a reasonable expectation of privacy, Stewart said. “This is one of those things that’s certainly a breach of our norms, but the law might not be a great way to take care of that yet,” he said. “That could change if the law evolves, but it’s moving pretty slow when it comes to this technology.”

Privacy concerns

At times, commenters question Gargac’s tactics. He often responds that his truck is a public space. “I have sex in my bedroom. I don’t have sex in strangers’ cars,” he said. “Because I have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the bedroom in my own house. I don’t have that in a stranger’s car.” Still, Gargac said he made changes in response to privacy concerns. About a month ago, his camera captured a momentary view up a woman’s skirt as she slid across his back seat. It was then “clipped” by one of his viewers for later viewing. The clip was still online until Saturday, when Gargac’s entire channel disappeared. After noticing the clip, Gargac created a graphic he could trigger with his control panel to block a portion of the screen with an image of a rooster.

Gargac said he created the graphic to avoid violating Twitch’s terms of service, which forbid sexual content. “So it’s partly the (terms of service) and partly to respect the people,” he said. “You know, I wouldn’t want my junk out there on camera, so I’m going to try to respect everyone else as much as I can.” Gargac also began trying to switch off the street-facing camera a few blocks from passengers’ homes. He muted addresses if he caught them before they were spoken and silenced two conversations: one about drug addiction and another about personal finances.

 

 

At some point, Gargac added a sticker, about 4 inches square, on his back passenger window — “Notice: For security this vehicle is equipped with audio and visual recording devices. Consent given by entering vehicle.” Passengers contacted by the Post-Dispatch said they did not notice it.

Videos were archived on his channel for 60 days after each livestream. In his interview with the Post-Dispatch, he said he would be willing to take down videos sooner if a passenger complained. Why do it? Gargac gave sometimes conflicting reasons for his livestreaming. He said livestreaming is a convenient stopgap as he seeks a job as a police officer — a career goal he often discussed with passengers. Gargac graduated from a police academy last year and is looking to be hired by a department. The Missouri Department of Public Safety confirmed that Gargac is a licensed peace officer in the state.

But it was not just about the income. Gargac said his wife is able to financially support him while he looks for a job. He says the livestream offered him security during his Uber and Lyft rides. “That’s really the biggest reason for the camera,” Gargac said. “The livestream and the Twitch and all that is really more secondary than the security that I feel knowing if something happens, immediately there can be a response versus hopefully you’ll find my truck in a ditch three weeks later.” In the same interview, however, Gargac said he started driving Uber and Lyft for the purpose of creating the livestream. Not the other way around.

“I love doing it,” he said. His stream built a community of fans who bonded over hours of watching Gargac’s rides. They shared pictures of their dogs and talked about their personal lives. One user even made T-shirts. But Gargac does not acknowledge that the community he created comes at the expense of real people. People who feel violated by the gaze of a hidden online audience. People who don’t want their personal details divulged on the internet. At the end of a 90-minute in-person interview with the Post-Dispatch, Gargac asked that his full name not be published in connection with this story.

The Post-Dispatch already knew his name. He said it in one of his own videos, and his identity was later confirmed through public records and social media accounts. He gave a reporter his business card. “Stick with my first name, if you can, because privacy concerns,” he said. “You know, the internet is a crazy place.”

 

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