The latest bout of Silicon Valley privacy concerns has come after car service startup Uber suggested that it would snoop into the private lives of journalists – serving as a reminder the power tech companies hold over users’ data.
Uber senior vice president Emil Michael announced last Friday his wish to invest $1mn to investigate the “personal lives” of journalists and their families who write critically about the company, according to a Buzzfeed report.
The same report claimed that Uber had once dug up private travel information of a journalist without permission.
According to sources, formerly employees at Uber, the tracking of individuals is easy with an in-house tool named ‘God View’. God View is able to indicate the location of Uber vehicles and customers who have requested a ride.
The revelation provoked a social media outcry on Tuesday, with the hashtag #ubergate trending on Twitter. Past Uber mishaps were also brought to the table, including the infamous “Rides of Glory” blog post by an Uber executive in 2012, which analysed riders’ data to gain insights into the overnight sexual relations of its users.
This latest case serves to highlight the wide ranging control tech companies hold over personal data and what they choose to do with it, and ultimately how policy is failing to provide legal frameworks for correct conduct.
“We have never in history been at a point where we were more extortable […] We have to think about how the service provider itself can be a threat,” said internet privacy expert Chris Hoofnagle, law lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.
Some Uber employees have openly tried to escape from the tarring brush unleashed by Michael’s comments. CEO Travis Kalanick tweeted that the remarks were “terrible”, and Michael released an official apology in which he said he was “wrong” to have said what he did.
Yesterday Uber released a statement emphasising its “strict policy” which prohibits all employees from accessing the data of both riders and customers. Uber said that the only exception to this rule is for a “limited set of legitimate business purposes.”
An Uber blog post stated the following:
We wanted to take a moment to make very clear our policy on data privacy, which is fundamental to our commitment to both riders and drivers. Uber has a strict policy prohibiting all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver’s data. The only exception to this policy is for a limited set of legitimate business purposes.
However, Ron Linton, chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, who actively campaigns against Uber snatching custom from traditional taxi drivers, warned that the company remains overly interested in compiling data in order to gain competitive advantage: “The greater part of their business plan is that they’re going to amass the greatest database of consumer habits that the world has ever seen.”
“In a time when our data ends up in databases, people can use it for their own prurient interests,” said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Time and time again, people do it.”
Uber, which connects drivers and riders via a smartphone app, is now valued at $18bn and operates across 46 countries.