For years, people have warned about corporations collecting your personal data. But no matter how much people insist that Google knows too much about you, we're willing to sacrifice privacy for convenience. Could the latest revelations about Uber finally get people angry enough to do something about rampant data collection?
Top image: Uber HQ, via SFGate.
Years ago, I was interviewing a privacy expert who made the point that most people in surveys say they're concerned about privacy — but most people also sign up for supermarket value cards, to save a few bucks on their grocery bills, and allow the supermarket to track their purchases, linked to their identifying info. Likewise, most of us click "agree" on online privacy statements without really thinking about them.
But in the future, as our data gets more and more integrated into our everyday lives in an intimate fashion, this may change. And a leading indicator may be the concerns over the revelation that Uber was keeping tabs on a Buzzfeed reporter's movements. At first, this was overshadowed by the larger story about an Uber exec, Emil Micheal, saying the company could hire investigators to get dirt on hostile journalists. But as the Washington Post observes:
But the data privacy implications of an Uber employee accessing a journalist's ride data without her permission may loom larger over the company in the long term than Micheal's poorly thought-out dinner banter. It's data about users' locations, after all, that enables the company's service. But not all Uber customers may have thought through the implications of the highly personal data cache they have turned over to the company. Uber, however, is intimately aware — in one 2012 blog post, the company boasted about being able to determine when likely overnight encounters occurred just by the timing and location of trips.
According to BuzzFeed, when reporter Johana Bhuiyan arrived at Uber's New York headquarters for an interview earlier this month, local general manager Josh Mohrer was waiting outside for her — and gestured to his iPhone, telling Bhuiyan he was tracking her arrival. In an earlier e-mail exchange with the reporter, Mohrer e-mailed her logs of some of her own Uber trips. The reporter had not given him permission to access her travel data, BuzzFeed says.
Uber says it's investigating this incident, and insists that rider information can only be accessed in a "limited set" of legitimate circumstances. But the notion that a company which probably knows where you live (or at least, where you get picked up from regularly) and where you go late at night, could be accessing data on your movements is concrete and arresting — in precisely the way that the idea of a company like Google tracking your movements online isn't.
Could Uber's slip-up be the incident that finally makes consumers start becoming more concerned about privacy as a practical, rather than just theoretical, issue? And even more importantly, are we seeing the future of disputes over Big Data, as online services become more and more integrated with our everyday lives? It'll be interesting to see.