The ACLU weighs in on Uber, but underestimates its power
From Senators to late night talk show hosts, the chorus of voices responding to Uber's controversy over targeting and tracking journalists keeps growing. And now the American Civil Liberties Union has weighed in -- and while its calls for Uber to strengthen user privacy protections and release regular transparency reports are sound prescriptions, I wonder if the ACLU isn't downplaying the seriousness of Uber's transgressions.
For example, Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley says Uber's brazen flouting of good data stewardship (and good taste) is not "ruthless," but merely "naive."
While the Uber executives look ruthless in their reported behavior, from another perspective they look more naïve in the openness with which they bragged about their abusive plans. It’s hard to picture one of the giant, established technology companies behaving in this way. However, what’s less clear is whether that’s because the established companies would never use their data in such a way, or because they are too smart to let anyone know about it.Furthermore, while Uber is younger and smaller than, say, Google (for now), it's hard to argue that it's not a "giant, established technology company." And yet Stanley characterizes Uber's behavior as that "of a newbie startup that hasn’t yet begun to understand the power and importance of the data they collect."
Look, I think Uber and its CEO Travis Kalanick clearly understand the "power and importance" of their data. The company's entire pricing model is built on data, which will become even more crucial as Uber moves into adjacent industries like delivery. And with Uber's increasing connections to the US Department of Defense, it's possible that Uber has much bigger (and more lucrative) plans for all the location data it collects, other than simply smearing rivals or showing off to journalists.
Nevertheless, Stanley's post, while perhaps a bit "naive" itself, raises some fascinating points about the handling of data in an age where the Internet has moved beyond computers and phones, and into cars and other physical devices. Stanley suggests that Uber offer a "private trip" option -- akin to opening an "Incognito" window in the Google Chrome browser. He also recommends that, like Google, Facebook, and practically every other tech company that collects our data, Uber should file regular transparency reports "detailing the quantity and type of government demands for the data it holds."
Not that Uber is likely to take the ACLU's advice, per se. But even if we never get the answers, at least the organization is asking the right questions about data in the "Internet of Things" age.
[illustration by Hallie Bateman]