Months ago there was a series of articles suggesting that whatever bad publicity Uber was getting, it was still publicity. And for Uber there really was no such thing as bad publicity.
I think that has now changed.
As recently as yesterday, I was seeing people either saying they’d deleted their Uber apps or exhorting other people to do so on social media. But then it seemed largely a matter of principle or solidarity with high-profile journalists like Sarah Lacy who’d crossed swords with Uber execs.
To think that you as a low-profile person in St. Louis or a someone in Boston might have been tracked would seem paranoid. After all, you’re probably just a number and a card swipe to those high-rolling Uber execs who keep getting busted in the press.
But a series of stories from the last twenty-four hours make it really not seem that paranoid at all. The number of people, rightly or wrongly, who are willing to change their habits because of the actions of a few executives is limited. But if you think Uber isn’t safe or is tied to creepy or menacing behavior that may directly affect you, that’s the kind of perception – accurate or not – that could sink the whole operation.
Here’s what I’m talking about.
Over the last 36 hours a number of stories have suggested that there are few internal controls within Uber about who can access what is purportedly called GodView, an analytics program which can allow you to track an individual user’s ratings or where they’re being ferried within the Uber system. Since Uber is based on GPS and transaction data, it’s always been obvious that this information exists on Uber’s systems. That’s the essence of the business model. It’s less obvious that this information would be readily available to Uber employees, except in very limited cases.
Just because some number of employees may be able to access this information doesn’t mean they’re allowed to or that they do. But that’s where the other information comes in.
Stories in Buzzfeed and other publications makes it clear that this has happened on a number of occasions. The cases we know about are probably best described as inappropriate rather than menacing. But they do make it sound like there are no strong internal checks on the use of the system.
Then there’s the point that we already knew about Uber, which is that it seems to have a pretty pronounced bro-tastic subculture which is not one that gives a lot of confidence that inappropriate or creepy or reckless behavior might be tolerated.
Put that together with apparently loose or even open access to tracking and you’ve got a big problem. Both for Uber users and now for Uber.