The PJ Tatler

Uber Has a Very Serious Privacy Problem (Updated)

Let’s get disclosure out of the way: I like Uber’s entrepreneurial spirit and creativity, but I’ve never actually used the company’s services. I don’t like Uber’s vocal support for Obamacare, at all. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick says “The democratization of those types of (healthcare) benefits allow people to have more flexible ways to make a living. They don’t have to be working for The Man.” Right, they just have to obey The Government Man or face the loving embrace of the IRS, the Tax Man. That’s not freedom.

Uber drivers should be aware that their company is on the record supporting higher taxes on them as individuals that the company isn’t willing to pay. Never mind all the privacy implications of centralizing all Americans’ healthcare records in the hands of a government that has already proven itself an aggressive antagonist and oppressor of dissent. Hello, IRS and NSA scandals…

That out of the way, Uber is a tech darling. But that may change, swiftly and brutally, after a couple of its executives have been caught using its “God View” to track a BuzzFeed reporter — and one threatened to use Uber-based information to destroy a critical reporter’s life.

Uber said Tuesday that it is investigating its top New York executive for tracking a BuzzFeed News reporter without her permission in violation of what the transit giant says has long been its privacy policy. The company also published its privacy policy for the first time on Tuesday, though it said the policy had always been in effect.

Uber took both actions in the wake of a BuzzFeed News story that revealed that the reporter’s ride had been tracked without her permission and that another Uber executive had suggested the company might smear journalists who wrote critically of Uber. The executive who suggested digging into the private lives of journalists, Emil Michael, said his comments were “wrong” and that he regrets them.

That’s a political take. Michael regrets that his comments, made at an off-the-record soiree, ended up on the record. Those comments suggest that Michael has a fully-formed plan to hush up journalists who ever criticize the $30 billion company.

Michael, who Kalanick described as “one of the top deal guys in the Valley” when he joined the company, is a charismatic and well-regarded figure who came to Uber from Klout. He also sits on a board that advises the Department of Defense.

Over dinner, he outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.

Michael was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, a sometimes combative voice inside the industry. Lacy recently accused Uber of “sexism and misogyny.” She wrote that she was deleting her Uber app after BuzzFeed News reported that Uber appeared to be working with a French escort service. “I don’t know how many more signals we need that the company simply doesn’t respect us or prioritize our safety,” she wrote.

I have nothing to say about Lacy’s reporting, as I haven’t followed it. In general, accusations of sexism and misogyny have come to feel like cries of “Wolf!” lately. In this case, though, Lacy may have a point.

Whether she has a point or not, Lacy has a right to criticize Uber without the company then using a slice of its billions to destroy her personally. The rideshare company that claims that it’s against The Man is behaving like The Man, and a very sinister Man at that.

Update: In the interests of disclosure…

BuzzFeed itself — a financial play as much as Uber is — has key investors who are investors in Uber’s main competitor, Lyft. Those investors are, too, investors inPandoDaily. Does this have any bearing at all on the cost of tea in China? I don’t know. But I know that little in this world is what it seems.

The author of that is Michael Wolff. He invited BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith to the party at which Uber’s Michael outlined his plot to go after journalists.