Uber tracking raises privacy concerns

Consumers and lawmakers are expressing concern about privacy after Uber said it is investigating one of its executives for allegedly tracking the private travel records of a journalist without her permission.

The revelation came after an Uber executive floated the idea of running opposition research on the personal lives and families of journalists who are critical of the company.

And last month Forbes magazine discovered that Uber employees used the internal company tool called “God View” to stalk VIP users.

Technology companies have amassed vast amounts of personal information on consumers from communications to online activities.

Increasingly that data also includes physical movements which is more sensitive for people, said Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research for the non-partisan Pew Research Center in Washington D.C.

Jeremy Pollock, 40, says he knows it’s getting tougher to maintain privacy in the digital age with his iPhone and the apps on it tracking his physical movements.

“But when you have an explicitly bad actor, it makes a lot of sense to limit your exposure to them,” said Pollock, a legislative aide to San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos who shut down his Uber account this week.

He was taking part in a #deleteuber movement that sprang up on Twitter.

“They have this bullying attitude like they can do whatever they want and they have a vindictive attitude toward people who get in their way. It made sense to get my data away from them,” he said.

When asked by an Uber customer service representative why he was shutting down his account, Pollock gave five reasons including: “Because of the creepy way Uber executives invaded people’s privacy to track them using ‘God View.'”

Pollock is not alone. According to a Pew Research survey released earlier this month, 50% of Americans consider details about their physical location over time to be very or somewhat sensitive.

Women were more likely to be concerned about it, with 53% calling it very sensitive while only 46% of men did. Younger women, between 18 and 29, were most concerned, with 58% calling their location data very sensitive.

Uber updated its privacy policy on Tuesday to clarify that the company “has a strict policy prohibiting all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver’s data.” The exception is for a limited set of legitimate business purposes, the company said.

Privacy watchdogs have asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Uber’s handling of consumer data.

On Wednesday, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) pressed Uber to clarify its data collection practices.

In a letter to Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick, Franken said reports of Uber staff’s behavior suggest a “troubling disregard for customers’ privacy.”

Franken asked specifically under what circumstances an employee would face discipline for a violation of Uber’s privacy policies and whether any such disciplinary actions have been taken.

The FTC has cracked down on companies that violate their own privacy policies on how they handle data, but have a lot of latitude as long as they comply with their own policies, said University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo.

He points to the incident in March when Microsoft revealed it had searched a user’s Hotmail account for information on someone allegedly leaking corporate information. Even though the search did not violate Microsoft’s privacy policy, it pledged it would no longer conduct those kinds of searches.

Calo says companies have to be very careful not to use data in ways “not anticipated by the consumer.”

Tracking consumers without a legitimate purpose could potentially open Uber up to regulatory investigation or enforcement or investigation from state attorneys general, he said.

“I think we all agree this it not what anyone expects as an internal business purpose,” he said.