New Reports Make Uber Look Even Worse

Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images.
Last month, Emil Michael, an Uber executive, told people at a dinner that he wanted to spend "a million dollars" digging up dirt on members of the media who criticized the car service. He later retracted his comments, and the next day Uber followed up by hastily posting a "long standing" privacy policy on its blog. But, you can't unring a bell: Michael's statements quickly turned into a much reported-on scandal, complete with calls for a boycott.
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And, it turns out, that was just the beginning. In a downright creepy piece in The New York Times, Zeynep Tufecki and Brayden King lay out why we should be deeply skeptical of Uber. Because, not only does the company have lots of sensitive information about its customers (your name and where you went last Wednesday, and whether it was to an ex-boyfriend's house or the doctor), it also hasn't proven itself a trustworthy keeper of that data.
Several years ago, Uber shared a blog post containing data about "Glory Rides" — trips taken between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. on Friday or Saturday nights with a return pickup at the same address around six hours later. The post has since been deleted, but the idea that Uber was spying on the hookups of its riders — and sharing that data as entertainment on its blog — remains. It doesn't end there. The Washington Post reports that the company's rider database is a "sitting duck for hackers," and that it has a history of being very relaxed about sharing that database. The company even let a job applicant peruse it to look for ride info on people he knew.
And, there's a lot of very sensitive information in that database. When you book a ride to Planned Parenthood and return a week later for a follow-up appointment, Uber knows. When you leave your job midday for an interview at another company, Uber knows. Which isn’t to say it's the only company with information about its users that should make people nervous: OKCupid published an entire book of data culled from its member base last year, and Facebook scientists can predict sexual trysts with frightening accuracy.
But, then again, Uber is a glorified taxi service, not a social platform. Users expect rants they post on their newsfeed to be shared publicly — that’s precisely the point. When a rider hops in a car for a weekly chemotherapy appointment because they’re too tired to climb subway stairs, they're making a private choice, not a public declaration. And, the fact that Uber is keeping tabs on those repeat visits to a clinic should make anyone with the app more than a little uncomfortable about what’s being deduced from your trip tracking.
Sure, it’s convenient to order an Uber when you can’t catch a cab. But, while it’s wonderful to get out of the rain, consider this: The data might already be able to predict exactly where you’re going from past trips and personal information. There’s nothing comforting about that.
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