On the Uber Privacy Disaster

The recent privacy violations by Uber executives are shocking, and they represent an interesting symptom of larger issues.

Uber is a great company. They offer a compelling service that pays attention to detail. Uber employees are among the most talented software engineers and businessmen. All in all, they create a phenomenal product. That is why it is so surprising to me that they could overlook privacy in such a way.

In the past two weeks, privacy issues have just kept coming. For those who haven't heard, an executive at Uber suggested that Uber utilize its vast data sets to look closely at journalists who criticized the company. Apparently, top Uber execs have access to a system that gives them a "God View" of all Uber data. This means they can see exactly where people have traveled using Uber. This level of access is a clear violation of privacy and feels counter to Uber's values.

As consumers and passengers that use Uber's service, we place an implicit trust in the service as a whole. We inherently believe that our data will not be shared, or, if we acknowledge that it may be distributed, we conveniently ignore the implications of that sharing. So even though we may have accepted terms and conditions that detail exactly this, it still feels like a violation in many ways.

So how could Uber have prevented this? They could have built their system with privacy in mind. The access to this "God View" system should have been severely limited and it should only have been accessed in exceptional circumstances, perhaps with the permission of the user.

Gathering and interpreting data is important, but targeting individual data without their knowledge is a huge issue. Similarly, Uber could have established clear guidelines for the use of their data. Large-scale, anonymized data could be aggregated for compelling analyses of city routes, but individual data offers less utility for the company. Uber should focus on the data that is valuable to itself as a company, not just valuable to an executive that wants to spy on journalists.

Uber, of course, is just one of many tech companies that we trust with valuable data, and I'm optimistic that they can turn things around. That said, I hope that other, fledgling tech companies can take notes from their struggles lately, and hopefully build privacy into their technologies from the start.