Uber is in hot water. Again.
Last night BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith published a story in which Uber executive Emil Michael suggested during a dinner with reporters that the ride-share company should, as BuzzFeed paraphrased it, hire “opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media.” Many Twitter users were outraged. Michael apologized, claiming the words he uttered in what he believed to be private moment did not reflect his true beliefs, and it looks like he will continue to be employed by the company.
The fact that Uber would (perhaps jokingly) suggest employing private investigators to dig up dirt on its critics is odd, considering how much it already knows about its users (which is hinted at briefly at the end of Smith’s post). Uber can already figure out where you live, where you work, and what bars and restaurants you frequent. It even knows what kind of music you like. It can reasonably predict where you want to go, and, if it wanted to, Uber could theoretically put your affairs (sordid or otherwise) on blast.
Uber’s recent history, however, seems to suggest otherwise. In a Medium post from October titled “Can We Trust Uber?” entrepreneur Peter Sims recalls an event in which he had his Uber car’s location in New York unknowingly shared on a screen by company executives at a party in Chicago. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick did not seem to think twice about it, using it as an opportunity to show attendees the cool things the platform was capable of. This party trick was called “God View.”
One night, a couple of years ago, I was in an Uber SUV in NYC, headed to Penn Station to catch the train to Washington DC when I got a text message from a tech socialite of sorts (I’ll spare her name because Gawker has already parodied her enough), but she’s someone I hardly know, asking me if I was in an Uber car at 33th and 5th (or, something like that). I replied that I was indeed, thinking that she must be in an adjacent car. Looking around, she continued to text with updates of my car’s whereabouts, so much so that I asked the driver if others could see my Uber location profile? “No,” he replied, “that’s not possible.”
At that point, it all just started to feel weird, until finally she revealed that she was in Chicago at the launch of Uber Chicago, and that the party featured a screen that showed where in NYC certain “known people” (whatever that means) were currently riding in Uber cabs. After learning this, I expressed my outrage to her that the company would use my information and identity to promote its services without my permission. She told me to calm down, and that it was all a “cool” event and as if I should be honored to have been one of the chosen.
Sims was one of 30 or so riders exposed. He was furious, and quit using the app. Forbes confirmed that the party was indeed held in 2011, but reported that two guests at the event were fuzzy about whether the presentation actually occurred or not.
Even if it didn’t mean any harm at the time, Uber willfully exposed the whereabouts of its customers, who have few ways to protect themselves aside from deleting the app altogether. Of course, Uber is not alone; lots of apps and other digital services collect data about their users. After all, other large tech companies like Facebook and Google (especially Google) have frightening amounts of information that can actually damage you and your reputation—to say nothing of what they might have given to the NSA. Uber’s particular breed of skeeviness in the aftermath of Michael’s comments spawns from the fact that the company has already shown itself to be a bad actor with its data; it has, on at least one occasion, recklessly and purposely exposed the whereabouts of its users without their consent—not to improve its services, not because of government pressure, but for no other reason than to show off.
The company will be fine; there is too much power and money behind it for it to squander what it has built. And there’s no evidence to suggest it has been using app data to dig up dirt on its customers. But it’s worrisome that a company that has raised $1.3 billion in capital has so publicly shown such a flagrant disregard for its customers’ privacy. Just imagine what Uber could, if it wanted to, dig up on its enemies behind closed doors—without having to hire outside help.