Is It Safe To Use Uber?

Is It Safe To Use Uber?

Uber's recent behavior raises questions about trust and privacy

  • Posted on: 21 November 2014
  • By: stannenb

When Uber, the livery company that promises to be everyone's private driver, introduced itself to Cambridge, its sharp elbows were apparent. CEO Travis Kalanick said Cambridge had "some of the most anticompetitive, corrupt transportation laws in the country." But now Uber, as its grown from scrappy startup to an $18 billion dollar behemoth, is facing questions about its own culture and business practices.

When Uber senior executive Emil Michael suggested to Buzzfeed's Ben Smith that Uber might spend "a million dollars" to look into the the personal lives and families of journalists critical of Uber, he thought he was speaking off the record. No one had told Smith that, so he did what any reporter would do, reported the story. According to Smith, Michael was particularly focused on Silicon Valley journalist Sarah Lacy who has written about a culture of "sexism and misogyny" at Uber. She could have added "creepy" to that list.

Take a March 2012 blog post from the Uber data team analyzing what they call "Rides of Glory". Uber analyzed their data to identify what they believed were rides to and from sexual encounters the Uber riders came to regret, defined as " a ride between 10pm and 4am on a Friday or Saturday night, and then a second ride from within 1/10th of a mile of the previous nights’ drop-off point 4-6 hours later." The blog post goes on to characterize the cities with the most Rides of Glory (Boston), and the neighborhoods from which they originate. It's unlikely that any Uber rider, when they signed up for the service, understood that their data would be used to analyze their presumed sexual habits.

Or consider the marketing initiative of the Lyon, France office of Uber. In October, they offered a service pairing riders with "hot chick" drivers, for a ride to up 20 minutes long. The offer was quickly deleted from the Uber web site after press inquiries. And there's CEO Kalanick's quips that the company should be called "boober" based on how much it has improved his sex life.

The Perception of Safety

When Uber first came in front of the Cambridge License Commission, the commission's concerns were about the safety riders. In their view, the licensing and background check model of the taxi industry provided safety and Uber did not. Some riders felt differently. One woman, outside a Commission meeting, said that standing on a deserted street, hailing a cab and not knowing who might stop didn't make her feel safe. Summoning a car with her smartphone, knowing who would arrive and stepping outside only when the car was there, that felt safe. And, if the worst happened and she disappeared, "there'd be a computer record so they'd know where to start looking." But that computer record is only helps with perceived safety if it isn't misused.

Uber's data systems have something they term "god view," a display of every current ride and rider active in Uber in real time, purportedly anonymized, whose mascot is Dr. Evil. This view into Uber is widely available to Uber corporate employees, and has been used as entertainment at social gatherings. More disturbingly, multiple media reports cite instances of when Uber staff removed the cloak of anonymity and "stalked" individuals.

When Buzzfeed reporter Johanna Bhuiyan met Uber's New York manager for an interview, he started the conversation with "There you are. I was tracking you." Imagine, for a moment, that Bhuiyan was meeting with a bank manager who offered that he knew her credit history, or a pharmacy manager who was aware of the medications she was taking. The outrage would be immediate and immense, as the banking and medical industries come with the expectation of strong controls regarding access to consumer data. But transportation data, being so new, is regulated by neither the industry nor the government.

Lacy, in response to Uber's musings that it might turn opposition researchers on her, wrote

I’ve finally deleted Uber from my phone. For one thing, I increasingly don’t feel safe as a woman taking it, frequently late at night and alone. I’ve got a good solid alternative in Lyft, and life is too precious for me to put mine at risk.

Deleting the Uber app is simple. Deleting Lacy's data from Uber's servers likely will prove more difficult.

Uber has announced that it's started an internal investigation of the misuse of "god view". Lyft, a competing service to Uber, is available in the Boston area.

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This work by Saul Tannenbaum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.