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Sen. Al Franken Now Asking Privacy Questions of Uber

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on November 21, 2014 7:58 AM

On Monday, we learned that Emil Michael, senior vice president of business at Uber, said at a dinner party that he planned to spend "a million dollars" to hire researchers to investigate and harass reporters who wrote stories critical of Uber.

The tone of Michael's statements, as reported by BuzzFeed's Ben Smith, is pretty clear: "They'd look into 'your personal lives, your families,'" he said, implying Uber would spend money to embarrass and expose journalists for the crime of doing their jobs.

Now comes a bizarre twist.

'God View'

On Wednesday, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota wrote a letter to Travis Kalanick, Uber's CEO, asking for clarification on Uber's privacy policy and "God view," which enables people (who? We don't know) to track Uber customers' movements in real time.

According to BuzzFeed, knowledge about "God view" goes back to 2011, when venture capitalist Peter Sims received text messages from someone he didn't know telling him exactly where he was during an Uber ride in Manhattan. This little stunt was apparently being broadcast on a screen at an Uber launch party in New York, which caused Sims to quit Uber over privacy concerns.

"God view" was also deployed earlier this month when Sarah Lacy, a reporter visiting Uber's New York City headquarters, was greeted by a general manger who knew exactly when she was arriving because he was tracking her. "God view" is "widely available to corporate employees," two former Uber employees told BuzzFeed.

Who's Minding the Store?

While Uber's carefully crafted press release distanced the company from Michael's statements, he remains employed there. His comments, combined with the existence of "God view," present a troubling picture for privacy, as Franken recognized. Could Michael, if he wanted to, track journalist Sarah Lacy in real time? Who else might have access to this information? How is access to the information restricted? Would anyone know if it were accessed for an illegitimate, non-business reason?

The answer to all of those questions is, "We don't know." This is yet another of those situations in which we're aware on an intellectual level that we're surrendering some of our privacy, but how much is unknown. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, concurring in Jones v. United States, the GPS tracking case, said it best: "[I]t may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties. This approach is ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks."

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