Uber is 'disrupting' the peace, one scandal at a time

Uber is 'disrupting' the peace, one scandal at a time

"Disrupt" is Silicon Valley's word for replacing services with more efficient, more convenient, tech-based alternatives. It often comes with a light flavor of disrespect for governing laws, exploitation of the workforce and tax-dodging strategies. Three years of scandals and disasters later, Uber has put its controversial CEO Travis Kalanick into an indefinite leave of absence. Despite a new master plan aimed at polishing its damaged public image, the Silicon Valley-based company can't be trusted anymore.

"When I was at [Uber], you could stalk an ex or look up anyone’s ride with the flimsiest of justifications," said Michael Sierchio, a security engineer at Uber from 2015 until June, in Reveal. "It didn’t require anyone’s approval."

After news broke two years ago that executives were using the company’s "God View" feature to track customers in real time without their permission (including executives, VIPs and relatives), Uber insisted it had strict policies that prohibited employees from accessing users’ trip information, with limited exceptions.

According to former Uber employee Ward Spangenberg, your personal information is not safe. He’s suing [DocumentCloud] the company for age discrimination and whistleblower retaliation. In doing so, he’s also alleging that Uber has been spying on users and lying about it for years. From The Guardian:

As well as a lack of oversight regarding customer data, Spangenberg alleges numerous other ethical breaches at Uber. The company stored driver and employee information in an insecure manner, he says, while it operated a vulnerability management policy which allowed data to be stored that way if the company deemed there to be a “legitimate business purpose” for doing so.

In other words, Uber could justify saving and peeping on almost anything.

Startups make use of their fresh and sometimes naive outlook to challenge existing businesses; Uber's approach hasn't been naive nor fresh, though. Kalanick's legacy includes all sorts of blunders, chronicled yesterday in The Guardian.

In 2014, Uber booked thousands of Lyft rides to bog down its top competitor. The God View scandal broke, revealing that Uber can monitor the location of its users, and Kalanick faced backlash for the company's first sexist joke.

In 2016, Uber was ordered to remove its self-driving cars from California roads after vehicles were caught running red lights.

Things went south in 2017. As a result of false advertising about potential revenue for its drivers, Uber lost around 500,000 users when the #DeleteUber campaign went viral. Sexual harassment, stealing industrial secrets and deceiving law enforcement finally led to Kalanick's leave of absence.

Tech companies entering markets sometimes disrupt existing industries for the better. Some other times – especially when technologies and location independence (or business delocalization) are leveraged – large tech multinationals are allowed a place in the market at the expense of both existing industry workers and the growing number of precarious gig workers. Uber has been accused of offering compensation below the minimum wage, and nothing has been done to protect workers' rights. Kalanick was even filmed arguing with an Uber driver:

Entering existing markets with high competition is a tough business. The startups that attempt it are sometimes willing to wage that battle at the cost of people's privacy, as in the case of Uber collecting and storing – with no credible data handling policy and policing – users' geolocation data even after finishing the ride. Other times it's done at the cost of workers' rights; Uber drivers are paid less than other private hire drivers in a market that Uber unlawfully disrupted and monopolized in the first place.

The convenience of booking a service on an app and being provided a better deal is costing us all a lot more than we gain.

Update 6/21/2017: Uber's founder and CEO Travis Kalanick has resigned after a shareholders' revolt. Source The New York Times

Stefano Garavelli

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