City Council Voices Concerns Over Uber’s Privacy Standards

December 4, 2014 | Prachi Gupta

San Francisco-based taxi app start-up Uber has come under a lot of scrutiny from all sides recently, with accusations of sexism, breaches of privacy with customer data, and allegations of unfair pay. The multiple controversies have worried New York City councilmembers that Uber is not in compliance with city law, and at a hearing on tech companies’ impact on taxis on Wednesday, they made it clear that the company needs to make some changes.

Among the council’s top concerns are how Uber uses customer data. In November, Buzzfeed reported that a top Uber executive suggested exposing the private lives of its critics in the media, and another Uber executive used the app to track a journalist without her permission. The separate reports prompted the executive to retract his comments, launched an investigation into the tracking incident, and led Uber to release its privacy policy. In light of these incidents, Brooklyn Councilman Steve Levin said, “There’s a long way to go here to establishing or re-establishing trust with the general population about whether or not their privacy is going to be secure and honored.”

But according to reports of the hearing, Uber was unable to provide straight answers to questions surrounding privacy. Crain’s reports:

Neither Uber nor Lyft representatives gave a straight answer to Councilman Daneek Miller’s question about whether third parties had access to passenger data, such as pick-up or drop-off locations or credit card numbers. Ms. Holt said Uber itself does not store users’ credit card information.

She also defended her company’s “strict policy” on access to private data, noting that anyone caught misusing the data would face discipline. She did not, though, make reference to the recent news that Uber’s New York general manager, Josh Mohrer, was punished for tracking the Buzzfeed journalist’s movement.

Capital reports that when Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez asked Uber who has access to “God view,” the program that “allows the company to track the movements of its users.” Uber’s East coast general manager Rachel Holt responded, “I don’t know the specific numbers.”

The company was also criticized for “failing to provide accessible rides for wheelchair-bound passengers,” and its demand-based pricing structure, which increases fare at peak traffic times. Capital reports that there could be dire consequences if Uber doesn’t shape up:

“They have to meet all the requirements for fitness for licensure and one of them is being in compliance with [Taxi and Limousine Commission] rules, so we’ll see where they are at that point,” T.L.C. chair Meera Joshi said during a question-and-answer session with reporters following the hearing.

Joshi indicated that if Uber doesn’t comply, it would risk its ability to participate in the city’s “e-hail” pilot program, which the administration plans to make permanent. The e-hail pilot allows New Yorkers to use smartphones to “hail” yellow and green taxis. (The rules that allow Uber to dispatch livery and black cars using apps are different.)

(Photo: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid)