Black Friday

Uber intrudes on privacy

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

November 24, 2014

Founded five years ago, Uber, a SanFrancisco based rideshare service, has grown dramatically. Along the way it has managed, as expected, to anger traditional cab companies. But through some questionable comments by one of its executives, it has raised the ire of the privacy-loving riding public. This Uber executive suggested that the company should use $1million of its vast wealth to investigate the private lives of journalists or anyone else writing critically about the company.

Uber now operating in 46 countries and more than 200 cities worldwide has grown into a behemoth worth in excess of $18 billion. Its creation has caused a great stir with riders and also much consternation among taxi companies. This latest edict by Uber Senior Vice-President Emil Michael last week has cast the car service in a new, unseemly light. In fact, it has people scratching their heads. When one thinks of attacks on privacy one thinks of cellphones and emails, not taxi rides. But that is what Michael’s comments have conjured up.

The controversy stemmed from Michael’s remarks stating a desire to dig up information on journalists’ “personal lives, your families” if they write copy which is deemed objectionable by the company according to a report published last week in BuzzFeed . The story also revealed that a different Uber executive once had examined the privates travel records of a Buzzfeed reporter during an email exchange about an article, without seeking permission to access the data.

Social media sites have lit-up, decrying the vindictiveness of Uber over the issue. People flocked to the hastag “#ubergate” on Twitter, and it was revealed that the company bragged in a 2012 blogpost that a company official analysed anonymous ridership data in Washington D.C. and other cities in an attempt to determine the frequency of overnight sexual liaisons by customers, so called “Rides of Glory”. Citizens therefore now have to be aware of yet another source of privacy intrusion and worse-possible extortion.

Michael and Uber spokesperson did not deny that such remarks were made, but pushed-back at the notion that it would investigate journalists. But the genie is out of the bottle and the public is now aware of how vulnerable it is when using the car service and, in that regard, are in the same predicament as journalists who reported on Hewlett-Packard, Wal-Mart, Deutsche Telecom Fox News and other tech companies. They became targets for surveillance.

In the incident in question, the general manager of Uber NYC accessed the Uber personal profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies-without permission. The profile included her itineraries, travel log, and payment information. A former Uber employee also weighed in saying that,

It’s not very hard to access the travel log information they’re talking about. I have no idea who is auditing this log or information. At least when I was there, any employee could access rider rating information, as I was able to do it. How much deeper you could go with regular access, I’m not sure, as I didn’t try.

Another former employee said that it would be easy to access such information. How long do you think it will be before the CIA, NSA and other law enforcement agencies get their tentacles into Uber and begin accessing their files? Uber knows who its riders are, when and where they are going, have been and are likely to have been doing. This is powerful stuff. Referring to the aforementioned “Rides of Glory”, these were folks who “took a ride between 10pm and 4am on a Friday or Saturday night, and then took a second ride from within 1/10th of a mile of the previous night’s drop-off point 4-6 hours later (supposedly slept).”

This revelation is enough to keep politicians awake at night. But maybe the danger is that Uber will exercise power over them. Where will it end? “We have never in history been at a point where we were more extortable,” opined Charles Hoofnagle, a law professor at UCal Berkeley who specializes in online privacy. “We have to think how the service provider itself can be a threat.”

All of us are at risk from this, but women are especially fearful of an entity knowing about where its customers live, work and socialize. But who for a moment would have thought of the service provider as a predator? The fact that the journalists involved in Uber’s transgressions were women merely compounds the uneasiness they feel. “I know many women who erased Uber from their phones last night…They really stepped over a line,” said Katherine Losse, a former Facebook employee who wrote about that company’s early days in the 2012 book “The Boy Kings”.

It is interesting to note that the aggressiveness and hubris of the founders expressed in the book is characterized in the remarks by Michael- Kings, indeed. Federal law provides little protection should a company decide to employ users information against them as long as they comply with their own privacy policies. It seems to be a case of buyer, or in this instance, user, beware.

For myself and many people like me, I will simply hail a cab or surf the net to find a local taxi service. One less thing to worry about.

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