Published On: Tue, Dec 16th, 2014

Sen. Franken Warning Uber of Its ‘Troubling Disregard’ for Privacy

big brother uber

So, yesterday the $18 billion futuristic taxi app company Uber was raked over the coals for price gouging over in Sydney Australia, charging as much as $100 to haul frightened passengers out of the downtown area, where a gunman was holding people hostage in a café. Today, we’ll discuss the many ways Uber can take advantage of the data it stores even as its customers are attempting to get themselves into its taxis.

What will tomorrow bring, you wonder. Uber prisons? Uber waterboarding? It’s a brave new transportation world out there. You’ve seen Snowpiercer, right?

Back in November, Senator Al Franken (Dem, Min), who, for the remainder of this month is still chairman of the Subcommittee On Privacy, Technology, and the Law, wrote Uber following reports of an Uber senior vice president named Emil Michael looking to conduct opposition research on critical journalists, and of an Uber employee who accessed the ride history of a BuzzFeed reporter.

Franken wrote the company saying both incidents “suggest a troubling disregard for customers’ privacy.” He asked the company to reveal its privacy practices.

Apparently, the taxi app provider has another useful app, called “God View, ” for tracking their customers. And while being able to track their taxis for security reasons is highly recommended, doing the same for the amusement of Uber executive and their party guests is sooo troubling, just like the senator said.

Venture capitalist Peter Sims wrote a piece titled “Can We Trust Uber?” He details a few, already familiar Uber practices that are borderline illegal, and then relays the following heart warming tale:

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 … 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.

Fun, right? Turns out the real Big Brother is a taxi app…

Sen. Franken directed similar concerns at Uber’s mortal enemy, Lyft, which uses, essentially, the same technology. How much of our privacy exactly are we giving up in return for the luxury of not having to stand out in the rain in rush hour, trying to hail those swarthy, Mediterranean gentlemen who pretend not to see us?

“My biggest concern is that they seem to have no policy, ” Franken added. “They have all this very sensitive data and they seem to have absolutely no real privacy policy.”

Uber told Franken it was updating its data privacy policy, c|net reported, and it now prohibits “all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver’s data.” According to Uber spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian, there are few exceptions, which include “a limited set of legitimate business purposes, ” like monitoring accounts in search of possible fraud.

On Monday it got better, when Uber said that one of its employees checked the BuzzFeed reporter’s ride on the service because she was 30 minutes late to a scheduled meeting with the same employee.

It’s no wonder the called it “God View.” It’s the view of a human being with $18 billion who can’t imagine why any woman would freak out realizing she is being tracked by the company she’s about to cover in a story.

In a statement released Monday, Sen. Franken wrote about Uber’s excuses: “Quite frankly, they did not answer many of the questions I posed directly to them. Most importantly, it still remains unclear how Uber defines legitimate business purposes for accessing, retaining, and sharing customer data. I will continue pressing for answers to these questions.”

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