Uber and Google are abusing user data for fun

Recent revelations about Uber and Google suggest that web companies may have their own purposes for your data.

Mobile phone data privacy.

Like many journalists, I’m concerned and outraged about the recent controversy regarding Uber executive Emil Michael. In my view, his comments about hiring opposition researchers and journalists to "help Uber fight back against the press" by investigating their families and personal lives—particularly Pando Daily’s Sarah Lacy—have terrifying implications.

Michael quickly backed off his comments, saying his words "do not reflect my actual views," while not denying he said them. (Reminds me of Charles Barkley once claiming to have been misquoted in his own autobiography!) And of course the company said it would never actually do such a thing. Trust us! But it has so far declined to fire or even discipline Michael.

Surprise! Uber knows where you go

But that’s not the most worrisome part of the story. It turns out that the coverage revealed what I think is an even more disturbing incident. From Ben Smith’s Buzzfeed article that broke the story:

In fact, the general manager of Uber NYC accessed the profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies. At no point in the email exchanges did she give him permission to do so.

If that’s true, and Uber claims its policies strictly forbid this kind of thing, it’s an even bigger red flag to me. While this particular use of data may not have been malicious, the fact is that companies like Uber and many others have access to all kinds of data that could reveal a great deal of their users' personal lives. And they face temptations to use and misuse it as they see fit.

They may have policies against using that data, but they have it, individuals at the company may have access to it, and it may not even violate any laws if they do—maybe just a toothless "user agreement" or "terms of service." Heck, Uber hardly needs all those investigators to spy on journalists who use its cars; it could just check its database and see when and where they went.

Google is hiring! Why is that a problem?

Here's another example—it seems that Google may be using search history to serve up special pages to folks who searched for various topics around the Python programming language. First discovered in Hacker News, the pages appear designed to find Python programmers and potentially hire them to work at Google.

Now, a job at Google may not sound like a bad thing—more like winning the lottery, for many people—but this practice totally creeps me out. It may not be that different than using search history to serve ads, but it feels invasive. Google knows so very much about almost all of us that it doesn’t take much to go from ads to Foobar Pages to who knows what. While it’s one thing to serve up pages that might get a Python programmer hired at Google, how big a step is it to start hiding (or just deprecating) search results that might lead those programmers to an alternate employer?

Of course, it’s not just Google and Uber. I can’t count all the various ways different companies are tracking data covering where I go, what I do, and what I read.

Remember the big to-do a decade ago over the Patriot Act allowing the government to see what library books you check out? Knowing just about everything about where you go and what you search for seems much, much worse. Of course, various government agencies—think bridge-toll authorities and healthcare entities—are also busy tracking your every move.

In most cases for most people, that’s probably not a big issue. But it’s easy to see how it could cause huge problems if misused.

Update: The Uber story got has gotten much worse. Again according to Buzzfeed, Uber employees can use a feature called "God View" to track the location of Uber vehicles and customers who have requested a car. The site gave several examples of Uber tracking users without their permission. As a result, Uber has announced "that it is investigating its top New York executive for tracking a BuzzFeed News reporter without her permission."


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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