Imagine a car service company that tracks its customers’ movements, posts them on a public website, and markets the information in the name of “public safety.” Instead of an outcry in this scenario, urban planners and cities laud the development, and the company is once again in the good graces of city governments that had once protested its intrusion into their cab markets.
This is not science fiction, or even an adaptation of Dave Eggers’ book-turned-movie “The Circle.” This is a new move by Uber, the company everyone loves to hate (and yet, still loves to use).
Uber, the legally challenged company that burst onto the car-sharing scene a mere eight years ago, rolled out “Uber Movement” in January. This traffic data site compiles customers’ GPS locations, sorts the data, and presents it on a reader-friendly and searchable website.
In an introductory video on the site, Uber Movement assures its users that it works “by leveraging anonymous GPS information,” and then it takes the user through a short tutorial on how to understand its travel metrics. Site users can adjust variables such as zone type, date-time range, and origin and destination zones. Users can then download data to input into their own models.
On Aug. 31, Movement went live to the public. The presentation is slick, easy to understand, and like anything one would expect from Uber, simplistically beautiful. At the present, the data is only available for Washington, D.C., Boston, Bogota, Manila and Sydney, but the website states it will be expanding to most cities in which Uber operates.
A History of Privacy Invasion
All of this may seem completely benign, and even helpful to urban planners working to improve their cities’ infrastructure and public transit routes. However, it bears repeating that Uber has been embroiled in significant privacy disputes (putting aside its sexual harassment allegations, splintered board and worker classification issues), with some of its most egregious violations revealed in recent months:
- In April, Uber was sued in a class action lawsuit in the Northern District of California for violating the Electronic Communication Privacy Act and the California Invasion of Privacy Act. The suit involved a former Lyft driver who claimed that the company was engaging in a secret program, referred to internally as “Hell,” in which the program tracked Uber drivers who were also driving for Lyft, and gave priority to those drivers, with the aim of persuading them to accept the rides through Uber, rather than through its competitor. The case was dismissed in late August, with leave to amend and refile.
- In May, the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into Uber’s use of the “Greyball” software program that apparently helped deceive regulators trying to end the service.
- In August, Uber settled with the FTC over a 2014 data privacy breach, in which more than 100,000 Uber drivers’ names and license numbers were stolen. The FTC was also concerned over Uber’s “God view” tool, which allowed employees to track particular Uber users without their permission. As part of the settlement, Uber agreed to independent, third-party audits every two years for the next 20 years, and the implementation of a new, comprehensive privacy program.
With these privacy issues in mind, it is easy to be suspicious of Uber’s claim on the Movement website that its primary motivation is “to play a role in helping cities grow in a way that works for everyone.”
It is also astounding to see the dearth of pushback that Uber has received for developing the Movement site. In fact, most technology websites find no harm in the practice. They seem to agree that the company had “anonymized and aggregated its data to ensure no personally identifiable information or user behavior can be surfaced through the Movement tool.”
What exactly does “anonymization” entail? Anonymization is the name for techniques that protect the privacy of individuals by deleting personally identifying information (PII) such as names and Social Security numbers. But anonymization is not the holy grail. In fact, it can lend a false sense of security to consumers.
Back in 2000, Dr. Latanya Sweeney, now-professor of Harvard’s government and technology and director of the university’s data privacy lab, published her findings that 87 percent of the U.S. population is uniquely identified by date of birth, gender and postal code. Then, in 1997, when Massachusetts released “anonymized” records summarizing every state employee’s hospital visit, Sweeney, a graduate student at the time, was able to identify then-Massachusetts Gov. William Weld with only those “anonymous” identifiers.
If that kind of technology existed in the 1990s, one can only imagine the techniques that can be employed on anonymized data today. Combine that with the excess of PII that people put on the internet—both intentionally and not—re-identification is less distant science-fiction fantasy, and more reality, leaving consumers open to identity theft, stalking or other types of hacking.
A Change of Guard
The problem is, Uber has not yet released any information on how the gathered PII will be scrubbed, or whether they actually have done so. Uber recently underwent a changing of its guard, as Travis Kalanick resigned as CEO in June. Dara Khosrowshahi, former CEO of Expedia, stepped in in late August amid high hopes that he may improve Uber’s image in the privacy stage as well as its bottom line. In fact, Uber has already agreed to cease tracking its riders for the five minutes after a trip had ended, a practice that the company had stated was necessary to ensure their customers’ safety, but the public had criticized as another indication of Uber’s undue invasion into their lives. Though Uber has denied its new CEO had anything to do with the location-tracking change, it is one potential indication of a change for the better. Still, it takes more than one person to change deeply ingrained corporate culture.
The Need for State or Federal Law Overhaul
Movement has other issues. One could question its accuracy, as it seems to insinuate that it is basing an entire city’s transportation solutions on the movement of its wealthier, app-wielding citizens. But perhaps its real risk is that it is providing a highly sought-after tool “free of charge” to the cities it tracks. Cities or states may accept this carrot and never challenge Uber’s privacy practices in exchange for this so-called “free” gift.
Although the FTC and the Justice Department are pursuing action against the company on individual basis, there still is not any comprehensive data privacy law in this country. Further, there still does not exist any private cause of action for harm caused to an individual by re-identified data.
And yet, a scarier fact remains: how much do Uber’s customers even care about anonymization or re-identification? We bear daily witness (and perhaps are guilty ourselves) to our contacts who post about their exact whereabouts on social media. The real harm of someone accessing and re-identifying that same person’s “anonymized” personal information seems remote—and perhaps mooted—when that person is freely putting that information out into cyberspace themselves.
In our tech-savvy era, Uber Movement is yet another hurdle for the justice system as it draws a line between what is legal and what is breaching people’s privacy.
Hillary Weinstein is an associate at Anapol Weiss, where she focuses her practice primarily on appellate advocacy, consumer class actions, and complex commercial and personal injury litigation.