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Category: Technology

“God View:” Uber Investigates Its Top New York Executive For Privacy Violations

In the wake of a BuzzFeed News story, the transit company is looking into the official’s tracking of a journalist’s location.

BuzzFeed News

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.

Tracking customers is easy using an internal company tool called “God View,” two former Uber employees told BuzzFeed News. They said God View, which shows the location of Uber vehicles and customers who have requested a car, was widely available to corporate employees. Drivers, who operate as contractors, do not have access to God View.

Early this November, one of the reporters of this story, Johana Bhuiyan, arrived to Uber's New York headquarters in Long Island City for an interview with Josh Mohrer, the general manager of Uber New York. Stepping out of her vehicle — an Uber car — she found Mohrer waiting for her. “There you are,” he said, holding his iPhone and gesturing at it. “I was tracking you.”

Mohrer never asked for permission to track her.

Two months earlier, to make a point about questions Bhuiyan had asked about ride-share competitor Lyft, Mohrer had emailed her logs of some of her Uber trips. He had not asked for permission to access her data.

Uber said access to and use of its data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes and that violations result in disciplinary action, including the possibility of termination and legal action. It also said it is investigating Mohrer's actions in tracking Bhuiyan and accessing her logs.

The two former Uber employees, both of whom worked at the company until this spring and requested anonymity, said that God View was easily accessible to staff across the company. One said employee said that he never saw unauthorized use of the tool; the other declined to answer that question.

Venture capitalist Peter Sims wrote about being tracked in a blog post this September. Back in 2011, he wrote, he was in an Uber car in Manhattan when he started receiving text messages from someone he barely knew telling him exactly where he was. That person later told him that she was at an Uber launch party in Chicago, where Sims' movements were being tracked via God View on a large public screen.

“After learning this,” he wrote, “I expressed my outrage to her that the company would use my information and identity to promote its services without my permission. She told me to calm down, and that it was all a 'cool' event and as if I should be honored to have been one of the chosen.”

Uber did not respond to BuzzFeed News questions about this incident.

The company, which had not previously published its privacy policy, unveiled it Tuesday on its blog. “Uber has a strict policy prohibiting all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver's data,” it states. “The only exception to this policy is for a limited set of legitimate business purposes.” Such purposes include solving problems for riders and drivers, monitoring accounts for fraudulent activity, and facilitating driver transactions. The company said the policy has always been in place and that employees agree to it when they join Uber.

On Tuesday afternoon, after Uber CEO Travis Kalanick tweeted a condemnation of Uber exec Michael's comments, Mohrer suggested the storm had passed, tweeting a celebratory image from the Uber New York office. He deleted it shortly after posting:


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BuzzFeed – Tech

Here’s How Uber Is Trying To Talk People Out Of Deleting Their Accounts

Community managers for the transit company confront journalist investigation allegations head-on to try and retain users.

Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

In the wake of a BuzzFeed News report that Uber SVP Emil Michael suggested hiring opposition researchers to find and publish personal information on journalists covering the company, some users have begun to delete their Uber profiles. But the company isn't letting them go easily.

One San Francisco Uber user, Brian Brophy, tried to cancel his account Tuesday evening, citing the company's “disturbing” business practices. In response, an Uber community manager vehemently defended the company in an attempt to retain Brophy as a user.

“We have not, do not, and will not investigate journalists. Those remarks do not reflect the views of the company and have no basis in the reality of our approach. Our executive has apologized for his comments,” the community manager replied.

Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti noticed and tweeted similar statement from an Uber community operations manager when she tried to cancel her New York account yesterday afternoon:


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BuzzFeed – Tech

Uber CEO Condemns “Terrible” Comments

“We should lead by inspiring our riders, our drivers, and the public at large,” Travis Kalanick said in a 13-tweet Twitterstorm this afternoon.

Handout / Reuters

This afternoon on Twitter, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick condemned comments made by Senior Vice President Emil Michael suggesting that the ride-sharing giant should consider hiring opposition researchers to dig up dirt on journalists who've previously criticized the company.

Michael's comments, first reported by BuzzFeed News, included the prospect of looking into details of the personal lives of specific journalists without their knowledge. While Michael issued a public statement calling his remarks “wrong no matter the circumstance,” Uber's outspoken CEO has been silent. Until now.

In an 13-tweet Twitterstorm, Kalanick decried Michael's remarks, saying that they showed “a lack of humanity.” While there was no official apology, Kalanick suggested that Uber should “tell the stories of progress and appeal to people's hearts and minds,” noting that the company will focus on regaining user trust.

“I will do everything in my power toward the goal of earning that trust,” he tweeted.

However, Kalanick failed to address the portion of the story that reports that Josh Mohrer, the Uber New York general manager, accessed BuzzFeed News reporter Johana Bhuiyan's Uber account without her permission. This is a clear violation of the company's policy on accessing the personal information of journalists' accounts, according to head of Uber communications Nairi Hourdajian.

Here is the full official Twitterstorm:


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BuzzFeed – Tech

Uber Executive Suggests Digging Up Dirt On Journalists

Senior vice president Emil Michael floated making critics’ personal lives fair game. Michael apologized Monday for the remarks.

Emil Michael, senior vice president of business for Uber, in July.

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A senior executive at Uber suggested that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media — and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company.

The executive, Emil Michael, made the comments in a conversation he later said he believed was off the record. In a statement through Uber Monday evening, he said he regretted them and that they didn't reflect his or the company's views.

His remarks came as Uber seeks to improve its relationship with the media and the image of its management team, who have been cast as insensitive and hyper-aggressive even as the company's business and cultural reach have boomed.

Michael, who has been at Uber for more than a year as its senior vice president of business, floated the idea at a dinner Friday at Manhattan's Waverly Inn attended by an influential New York crowd including actor Ed Norton and publisher Arianna Huffington. The dinner was hosted by Ian Osborne, a former adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron and consultant to the company.

At the dinner, Uber CEO and founder Travis Kalanick, boyish with tousled graying hair and a sweater, made the case that he has been miscast as an ideologue and as insensitive to driver and rider complaints, while in fact he has largely had his head down building a transformative company that has beat his own and others' wildest expectations.

A BuzzFeed editor was invited to the dinner by the journalist Michael Wolff, who later said that he had failed to communicate that the gathering would be off the record; neither Kalanick, his communications director, nor any other Uber official suggested to BuzzFeed News that the event was off the record.

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.

At the dinner, Michael expressed outrage at Lacy's column and said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. He said that he thought Lacy should be held “personally responsible” for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted.

Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber's dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.

Michael at no point suggested that Uber has actually hired opposition researchers, or that it plans to. He cast it as something that would make sense, that the company would be justified in doing.

In a statement through an Uber spokeswoman, Michael said: “The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner — borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for — do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company's views or approach. They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them.”

The spokeswoman, Nairi Hourdajian, said the company does not do “oppo research” of any sort on journalists, and has never considered doing it. She also said Uber does not consider Lacy's personal life fair game, or believe that she is responsible for women being sexually assaulted. (Lacy initially declined to comment on Michael's remarks; she denounced them in a column after this story was published.)

Hourdajian also said that Uber has clear policies against executives looking at journalists' travel logs, a rich source of personal information in Uber's posession.

“Any such activity would be clear violations of our privacy and data access policies,” Hourdajian said in an email. “Access to and use of data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes. These policies apply to all employees. We regularly monitor and audit that access.”

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.

At the Waverly Inn dinner, it was suggested that a plan like the one Michael floated could become a problem for Uber.

Michael responded: “Nobody would know it was us.”

BuzzFeed – Tech