At a recent dinner, Uber Senior Vice President Emil Michael suggested that Uber could spend “a million dollars” to hire opposition researchers to dig up dirt on journalists who were critical of the company, a service for hailing taxis, private cars or ride-shares. According to BuzzFeed: ”That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into ‘your personal lives, your families,’ and give the media a taste of its own medicine.” He mentioned specifically focusing on the private details of the life of journalist Sarah Lacy. Lacy’s response is here. Michael has apologized for his comments, and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said Michael’s comments “were terrible and do not represent the company.”
If Uber were to investigate journalists or other critics, it would not be the first company to do so. Two cases involved Germany’s Deutsche Bank and Hewlett-Packard. In 2009, Deutsche Bank fired two executives because of a scandal in which bank executives hired investigators who spied on board members and a shareholder. In early 2006, then-Hewlett-Packard Chair Patricia Dunn hired private investigators that used “pretexting” to acquire the personal phone records of board members and journalists in an effort to locate the source of leaks to the media. (“Pretexting” is a fancy word for “pretending to be someone else in order to get his or her personal information” — in this case, phone records.) There were various criminal and Congressional investigations. Dunn said she didn’t know that the investigators were pretexting, and the charges against her were eventually dismissed. The scandal prompted Congress to pass the Telephone and Records Privacy Act of 2006, which prohibits pretexting to gather phone record data (with exceptions for law enforcement).
BuzzFeed also reported that another Uber executive, the general manager of Uber NYC, did something that also raises privacy questions. During an e-mail exchange with a journalist, the Uber executive “accessed the profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies. At no point in the email exchanges did she give him permission to do so.” This raises the specter of an insider misusing or abusing his data-access privileges to invade the privacy of an individual. We’ve talked before about the problems that arise when insiders abuse or misuse their access to individuals’ data. There have been many such cases. Read more »