The revolution is over. Uber self-destructed. Time to get back in our taxis.
Or so some wish. But it’s not going to happen. Uber may be in trouble — and there will likely be much angst about customer privacy — but the revolution it spawned will continue.
The company that has become a synonym for travel (“Let’s uber home”) is facing a PR crisis, provoked by what were supposed to have been off-the-record comments at a private dinner. Senior executive Emil Michael, waxing on about unfair media coverage, talked about hiring investigators to dig up dirt on a journalist who was critical of the company. Media folks everywhere were horrified, naturally, because while they have no compunction about exposing others’ dark secrets, they think their own are off-limits. In any event, it’s not clear that Michael’s comments were really all that threatening; they may have just been a boozy, off-hand joke.
Still, like a Bill Cosby meme gone bad, Michael’s loose remarks were a tipping point of sorts, unleashing talk about Uber’s sexist, frat-boy reputation. Nerdy CEO Travis Kalanick, bragging about his new-found popularity with the opposite sex, once called the company “Boob-er.” A bizarre ad campaign in France featured female Uber drivers in scanty lingerie. And in 2012 the company ran a strange analysis using passenger data to track one-night stands.
So now we see customers contemplating whether to delete the app from their phones while others are calling for the heads of Uber’s executives. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, called Uber “the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley.”
Of course, Thiel is also an investor in Lyft, Uber’s pink-mustachioed nemesis.
Companies come and go, and Uber may or may not sort things out. The bigger question is whether the Uber scandals imperil the entire ride-sharing movement. And the reason comes down to privacy: Ride-sharing apps of all sorts know where their customers have been and where they’re going. Data like that can be put to use in some pretty nefarious ways — including attacking one’s critics. Ah, for the good old days of taxis, one thinks, when transactions were in cash and the driver never knew your name.
Uber managed to flame this fear with staffers apparently abusing a software program known as “God View,” one that allows users to follow the movement of their customers. Stories abound of Uber execs showing off “God View’’ at parties or tracking when someone will show up for a meeting.
Scary? Yes. But not as scary as this. If you have an android phone, go to google.com/locationhistory and log-in. There you’ll find a calendar. Click on any date and you’ll see a map showing every single place you have ever been for that day and how long you were there. It’s truly disturbing. Snooping spouses and snooping governments would have a field day.
All of which is to underscore a point most of us at least dimly know: Information about us is constantly being collected. Data from cellphones track our movements. Cameras on the streets see what we’re doing. When we purchase something with a credit card, there’s a record tied of what we bought. Cable companies know the movies we’re watching; e-book companies know what we’re reading; websites track the stories we view.
In this context, the data from ridesharing apps such as Uber’s God View are inconsequential. Indeed, even the anonymity of a traditional taxicab is disappearing. When you pay for your taxi with a credit card, your trip is recorded somewhere. And new apps such as Flywheel are seeking to help the taxicab industry by making it even more like Uber, Lyft, and their kin.
The issue, really, is not that the data are being collected, but how they’re being used. In the wake of the Uber scandal, Lyft tightened up its own rules on who has access to customer data. Politicians such as Senator Al Franken are asking questions. We’ve all recently become afraid of the National Security Agency. But the spies in our lives are everywhere. Private companies need the same tight limits we’d put on the government.
This column was first published in The Boston Globe on November 25, 2014.