Uber privacy fiasco suggests we are 'extortable'


When a top executive threatens to dig into the private lives of journalists who criticize his company, it’s sure to cause a ruckus.

At a New York City dinner party on Monday, the senior vice president of ride-sharing service Uber, Emil Michael, floated an idea to hire opposition researchers and journalists to dig up dirt on critics. BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith heard the statement and published Michael’s comments on the site, not the first time Uber has been accused of abusing its power. 

The result is #ubergate, a deluge of opinions at the intersection of privacy rights, cybersecurity and ethics at a time when journalists are just part of a larger group that is vulnerable.

"The reports suggest a troubling disregard for customers’ privacy, including the need to protect their sensitive geolocation data,” US Senator Al Franken, chair of the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, wrote in an official letter to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

More extortable than ever

Uber is just one of many technology giants to face the whiplash of privacy issues looming large as "big data" collection increasingly becomes the bedrock of a variety of industries.

Facebook, for one, has received a lot of bad rap: In 2012, former employee Katherine Losse wrote that she received a master password that gave her access to any information users typed into their accounts. Earlier this year, the company faced heavy criticism after it came to light that Facebook researchers had been subtly influencing hundreds of thousands of users in a secret mood experiment.

Google also met public disapproval this spring when it revealed that it analzyes users’ information to customize search results, advertising and spam and malware detection. The same goes for dating site OKCupid, Walmart, Target and a number of other businesses and services that use consumer data to their benefit in one way or another.

"We have never in history been at a point where we were more extortable," Chris Hoofnagle, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in online privacy, told The Chicago Tribune. "We have to think about how the service provider itself can be a threat."

And the public, to some degree, both understands that reality and is uncomfortable with it: A Pew Research study this month found that 91 percent of Americans believe that consumers have lost control of how companies use their personal information.  

“[T]he majority of adults … feel that their privacy is being challenged along such core dimensions as the security of their personal information and their ability to retain confidentiality,” according to the study.

Towards better privacy measures

One problem with protecting our personal information is that we “can be very informed [about privacy laws and policies] and not necessarily be protected from abuse,” said Andrew Crocker, a legal fellow with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based nonprofit that seeks to defend civil liberties in the digital realm.

Stories of abuse and misuse tend to come out in leaks and isolated incidents, such as this case with Uber, Crocker said. That, along with the fact that each company has its own terms and policies, makes it hard to address as a whole the issue of how businesses ought to be regulated in their use of consumer data and information, he added.

A privacy reform law would take the discussion to a broader table, Crocker said, but the House has been deeply divided about privacy legislation.

Another way to address the issue would be to get companies to realize that protecting their customers’ privacy is in their best interest: “[B]usinesses need to treat privacy as far more than a compliance issue,” tech and business reporter Heather Clancy wrote for Fortune. “Companies that build clear, proactive policies can capture [customers’] attention and earn their business.”

About a third of executives in charge of security strategy see a solid privacy policy as a “potential competitive differentiator," Clancy pointed out. 

Ultimately, Crocker said, how best to safeguard privacy in an increasingly data-reliant and digital world is an issue that government, businesses, advocates and individuals have to openly discuss – and a challenge they must face together.

“With great data comes great power, and therefore responsibility,” new media expert and tech columnist Alexander Howard wrote for Wired. “That means culture and ethics matter.”

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