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“I got out and ran”: with one attack a week in London, is using Uber safe for women?

Users entrust untrained strangers to drive us around simply because they operate via a sleek, shiny app.

The most unsettling experience of my life cost me £34.75. At 2:50am on a Sunday morning in February, I got into an Uber – a taxi ordered via the ride-hailing app of the same name. The app informed me I would be home in 26 minutes, but I wasn’t. When I finally opened the door to my flat over an hour later, I burst into sobs.

In an effort to extort more money from our journey, my driver took me all across London – and off the predetermined route Uber had mapped out. On the app, you can watch your journey as it progresses, a little black car moving steadily along a planned blue line. When I realised we had gone a different way, and looked out the window to see we were driving through a deserted industrial estate at 3am, I started to panic. In the end, a £10 journey cost nearly four times as much – but I was relieved. I spent the ride fearing my driver wanted to take advantage of me in a different way.

This wasn’t the first time that it struck me how strange it is that Uber users entrust untrained strangers to drive us around simply because they operate via a sleek, shiny app.

Yet that journey was the first time I fully felt the weight of what this means. The morning after, I Googled to see if my fears were unfounded. They weren’t. From February 2016 to February 2017, there were 48 alleged sex attacks by Uber drivers reported to the police in London. That works out at nearly one attack by an Uber driver in London a week.

Not all of these attacks took place within Uber cars, and Scotland Yard added a caveat to the data that some of the accused may have been incorrectly identified as working for Uber, while not all of these complaints resulted in the drivers being charged.

Nonetheless, it is an alarming statistic. Like black cab drivers, Uber drivers must obtain a licence from their local authority and go through a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, which flags previous convictions. Yet, in 2016, five UK Uber drivers were convicted of sexually assaulting their passengers. In the same year, no licensed black cab drivers were charged with journey-related sexual offences. In July 2017, a London-based Uber driver who waited outside bars to pick up and rape drunk women was jailed for 12 years.

When I get in touch with other women to ask if they have felt unsafe in an Uber, it feels as though everyone has a story. “I’ve never had conversations with people where it immediately became sexual so quickly,” says 22-year-old Akeno Katsuda, whose Uber driver started asking her “invasive” questions about her sex life as he drove her home from a night out. “The fact that he knew where I lived was a little scary.”

Katsuda has other bad experiences – one driver asked her where she was from and said, “It would be nice to marry a Japanese woman because they are sexually subservient”. She isn’t alone. Ellie Dickinson, also 22, tells me about an incident where an Uber driver made lewd comments towards her, even though her brother was also in the car. Aliss Wagner, 23, had a driver who – like mine – took her around London instead of taking the pre-planned shorter route.

“He deliberately put his inside mirror down so that he could see me in it, and kept staring at me through it even while driving,” she says. When the driver stopped at a red light and Wagner realised she wasn’t on the right route, she banged on the car window to attract the attention of a nearby couple. “They looked at me, but then the driver drove away.”

In the end, Wagner was safe – if a little late. As the driver finally neared her destination, Wagner rolled down the window and opened the car door from the outside. “I got out and ran,” she says.

In September 2017, Transport for London (TfL) decided not to renew Uber’s licence to operate in London, accusing the company of “a lack of corporate responsibility” when it came to public safety. A month before this, a Metropolitan police inspector warned TfL that Uber was not reporting serious crimes, a failure that allowed an accused sex attacker to go on to assault a second woman. Though the company is attempting to appeal, traditional taxi drivers are overjoyed about
TfL’s decision.

Other cabs aren’t necessarily safe, though. Uber gets most of the scrutiny because it’s a young tech company that made headlines in 2016, when it emerged its drivers had been accused of 32 assaults in the previous year.  Despite the coverage, however, the data revealed that during the same year there were 122 allegations against other taxi drivers in London, including black cab drivers, legal and illegal minicabs, and chauffeur-driven cars. Many women feel unsafe in traditional taxis and some even think Uber is safer, as the app allows friends and family to track journeys. As of February 2018, Uber now also reports crimes directly to the police.

Yet perhaps we expect more of Uber precisely because it is new. The company used technology to make taxis cheaper for everyone – why can’t it make them safer too? It could be mandatory for every Uber driver to install a tamper-proof CCTV camera in their car, for instance, or the panic button in the Indian version of the Uber app could be made available worldwide.

The other solution – that women stop taking Ubers alone, or at all – isn’t always feasible and would be a significant blow to female independence. Each of the women I spoke to still uses Uber, despite their experiences.

“I think it’s just way convenient so I continue to do it,” Akeno Katsuda told me. I have also taken Ubers alone after my unsettling experience. It is not a coincidence that the women I spoke to were aged 22 and 23. When money is tight, and walking home or taking the night bus is the most dangerous option of all, the frying pan can be the only alternative to the fire. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war

Carolyn Stritch
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The inside story of one Instagrammer’s fake trip to Disneyland

Why did one influencer pretend to be 10 years younger, fake a trip to Disney, and edit herself a new nose? 

In the cold, gravelled backyard of her British home, 32-year-old Carolyn Stritch took a photo that would later accumulate over 18,000 Instagram likes. She wore a sunhat and sandals – even though it was March – and held out the skirt of her flowy summer dress. In the background were the red bricks and bent window blinds of her Sunderland home, with a patch of damp moss visible on the pavement outside.

The shot was vastly different from the glossy, stylised photos Stritch usually posts to her Instagram @theslowtraveler, where she has nearly 200,000 followers. For two and a half years, Stritch has posted pictures to the site and run her own personal blog, often being paid by brands to promote their products. “My images are all edited and styled to an extent,” she explains. Each is light, bright, clean, and – like most pictures posted by Instagram influencers – incredibly aspirational.

“I’m sure some people look at my account and it makes them feel bad,” Stritch says. “Look at my account and you might think I’m always either travelling or I’m lounging by the window with a coffee and a book.”

It was this that inspired the Instagrammer to lie.

The photo 18,000 people liked on Instagram didn’t look as though it was taken in Stritch’s backyard. She used Photoshop to cut out her body and imposed it on a picture of Disneyland California she found on the web. “I’ve taken myself off to California. There I am in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle – my crazy, self-indulgent 22nd birthday present to myself,” she captioned the picture. “Tomorrow I’ll be back home and it’ll be like it never even happened!”

Of course, it never did.

“I wanted my fictional narrative to challenge the way I portray myself online and the effects of this portrayal,” Stritch wrote in a blog post explaining her fake picture. She explained how she had “faked” other pictures in the past:

“I never read by the window – those windows, beautiful as they are, make my flat freezing cold. Sometimes that coffee cup I’m holding is empty. I suck in my stomach. I rearrange the furniture. I Photoshop out dirty marks made by bashing furniture off the walls.

“Is it bad to do those things? I don’t know.”


A post shared by Carolyn (@theslowtraveler) on

Since the app launched in 2010, Instagram has been accused of encouraging fakery. The social network’s filters have always made life look more magical than it really is, but the rise of influencers (people, like Stritch, who are paid to promote products to their followers) made things gradually faker. In October 2015, model Essena O’Neill called Instagram “contrived” and quit the site after rewriting the captions on her posts to explain the reality behind long photoshoots and brand deals. In May 2017, photographer Sara Melotti told the New Statesman about the “Instagram mafia”, a group of influencers who like each other’s pictures in order to seem popular.

Stritch’s faked Disney pic is perhaps most similar to a scandal involving blogger Amelia Liana last year. In July 2017, Liana was accused of Photoshopping other tourists from her pictures, with some critics even claiming she superimposed herself on to tourist sites. “All my imagery is actually shot at the time in the location I specify,” she said at the time. “I strive as far as possible to present images that have been shot using natural light and in real conditions.” Eagled-eyed followers noticed a flock of birds seemed to fly in the background of many of her pictures. Nowadays, hot air balloons are frequently seen in the background of her shots.


A post shared by Amelia Liana (@amelialiana) on

“I think we all have a shared responsibility to make social media better,” says Stritch, who reiterates that she faked the Disney picture in order to question her own practice, not others. Though a few of her followers asked how she managed to get a photo with no one else in shot, most simply admired the pic. “Wow amazing shot,” wrote one. Another: “This is so cool. Never seen Disneyland so empty before.” Multiple commenters used the word “magical”.

As part of the project, Stritch also faked her face. Via the photo-manipulation tool FaceApp, she made her face slimmer, brighter, and more flawless. “I was horrified when I saw my new face,” she says – her own mother didn’t question the image, assuming instead that her daughter had simply “gotten really good” at make-up.

Of course, exposing Instagram fakery is in itself now a solid Instagram PR trick. Instagrammers who take “real” pictures of themselves sans make-up, or explain in candid captions that their lives aren’t perfect, often gain publicity on the site. It’s a cynical news cycle, and one that so far seems to have come up with few answers on how to make social media a healthier place. Stritch’s fake pictures might not change the Instagram community – but she never wanted them to. “This project was about me questioning my own practice,” she says.

“I have to work, study, exercise, clean the bathroom, do all the stuff everybody else has to do. I feel all the same pressures my followers feel. I want people to know that.”

Stritch doesn’t know where the line is when it comes to Instagram fakery, and admits she's still figuring things out. “This project has thrown up more questions than it’s answered and it’s still something I’m trying to work out,” she says.

“It’s about trying to make work that’s both responsible and good.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.