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Uber’s God View is a Threat to Privacy

— December 19, 2016

In recent weeks, whistleblowers revealed that “sharing economy” giant and somehow-not-a-taxi taxi service Uber may have been less than honorable concerning their pledge to stop tracking their customers when there wasn’t a valid business reason to do so. The story begins two years ago, when Uber executives allegedly abused the company’s God View feature, which follows the whereabouts of customers (and anyone who has the Uber app running in the background on their smartphone).

Ostensibly, God View is meant to provide necessary and useful data to Uber drivers in order to facilitate efficient pickups. It’s also used for data analysis such as seeing how many times passengers end up having to cross the street after being dropped off at their destinations. However, in 2014, BuzzFeed News determined that one of their reporters, Johana Bhuiyan, had been tracked by Uber executive Josh Mohrer. At the time, an Uber spokesperson claimed that the ability to track the whereabouts of a customer, even when they’re not currently a passenger in an Uber vehicle, was limited to legitimate business uses. It’s a little difficult to believe they were telling the truth, though, when around the same time, BuzzFeed quoted an ex-Uber employee’s report that their senior vice president of business, Emil Michael, said the company should “dig up dirt on its critics in the media.”

Do you feel comfortable with the idea of Uber's God View being focused on you? Crocodile eye photo by Dennis, via Flickr.
Do you feel comfortable with the idea of Uber’s God View being focused on you? Crocodile eye photo by Dennis, via Flickr.

After this scandal, Uber promised to clean up their act. They changed their data privacy policy, to prohibit “all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver’s data.” CEO Travis Kalanick tweeted that the remarks “showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity and a departure from our values and ideals,” but didn’t fire Michael, noting that people should learn from their mistakes.

Uber, no stranger to scandal, apparently didn’t learn from their mistakes. The latest app update (3.222.4) enables them to harvest location data not only from customers who have the app running in the background, but even when it’s not. Although they claim they will use their powers for good, they’ve already fooled us once, and there are reports that employees are still using location data to track customers both famous and private. Fool us twice, shame on us.

Users of the Uber app can manually turn data collection off (and be chided by the app to turn it back on), and the New York Attorney General’s Office reached a settlement with Uber requiring encryption of location data and other safeguards. However, how much do you trust Uber to be good stewards of your data? In the past, Uber employees have used their God View powers to check up on current and previous spouses and partners, much the way Edward Snowden claimed that NSA workers used their spy superpowers. Taking it a step further, it’s not hard to imagine other customers, such as the government, being interested in the potential of Uber’s rich location tracking data.

People who distrust the monopoly of government often trust businesses more, claiming that if a business engages in unsavory practices, it’s much easier to quit using their services or to switch to another company. This may be true, especially if many easily accessible businesses trade in similar products or services. It will be interesting to see what becomes of Uber’s customer base as they learn that they’re potentially being tracked 24/7 by a company with a history of scandals and controversies. If they resent NSA overreach, for example, will they also resent Uber’s all-seeing God View and make their transportation choices accordingly? Or will a cheap and convenient, mostly unregulated ride service be worth the intrusion? Or maybe people will moan and complain about data collection, but keep using the popular ride-share service anyway. The last seems the likeliest, yet it renders complaints about data collection and overreach to be just hot fumes.


Uber said it protects you from spying. Security sources say otherwise
Uber defends privacy practices after allegations it spies on riders
Uber begins background collection of rider location data
NSA: Some used spying power to snoop on lovers
Uber’s God View Was Once Available to Drivers
Uber’s God View under scrutiny as spotlight intensifies on its practices
A brief history of Uber scandals

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