Senator Al Franken Asks Uber’s CEO Tough Questions On User Privacy

Senator Al Franken, Chairman of the Subcommittee On Privacy, Technology, and the Law, has posted a public letter to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in which he addresses many of the claims made over the past few days that the company has consistently compromised user privacy as a matter of course.

“I am especially troubled because there appears to be evidence of practices inconsistent with the policy [Uber spokesperson] Ms. Hourajian articulated. It has been reported that a tool known as ‘God view’ is ‘widely available to most Uber corporate employees’ and allows employees to track the location of Uber customers who have requested car service. In at least one incident, a corporate employee reportedly admitted to using the tool to track a journalist. The journalist’s permission had not been requested, and the circumstances of the tracking do not suggest any legitimate business purpose. Indeed, it appears that on prior occasions your company has condoned use of customers’ data for questionable purposes,” wrote Senator Franken.

Franken went on to ask eight questions, which will probably be answered on the Senate floor in the coming weeks. “Your policies suggest that customers’ personal information and usage information, including geolocation data, is maintained indefinitely — indeed even after an account is terminated. Why? What limits are you considering imposing? In particular, when an account is terminated, why isn’t this information deleted as soon as pending chmges or other transactional disputes are resolved?” he asked. “Where in your privacy policy do you address the ‘limited set of legitimate business uses’ that may justify employees’ access to riders’ and drivers’ data, including sensitive geolocation data?”

The letter is a reaction to a number of stories that surfaced recently regarding the alleged stalking of a former TechCrunch journalist as well as accusations that a so-called “God View” had been used to track users (among them journalists) as they used the service. The company stated that it would only look at the data it collected for “legitimate business purposes”. The company addressed these concerns in a post:

Uber’s business depends on the trust of the riders and drivers that use our technology and platform. The trip history of our riders is confidential information, and Uber protects this data from internal and external unauthorized access. As the company continues to grow, we will continue to be transparent about our policy and ensure that it is properly understood by our employees.

Silicon valley playing fast and loose with data is nothing new but Uber’s particular brand of hubris coupled with a trove of data is dangerous. We users trust services like Uber because they are at once familiar and also terribly high tech. When a company abuses that trust, everyone loses. While a draconian (and EU-like) policy isn’t imperative, common sense and a dedication to the humanity and privacy of customers certainly is.

141119 Uber Letter