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    Nov 20, 2014

    Uber exec's data-digging threat backfires


    AN UBER executive's suggestion that the company should investigate the private lives of journalists has sparked a backlash against the popular car service, offering a potent reminder that tech companies are amassing detailed - and potentially embarrassing - records of users' communications, Internet traffic and even physical movements.

    The controversy stemmed from remarks by Uber senior vice-president Emil Michael on Friday night as he spoke of his desire to spend US$1 million (S$1.3 million) to dig up information on "your personal lives, your families", referring to journalists who write critically about the company, according to a report published on Monday night by Buzzfeed.

    The same story said another Uber executive once examined the private travel records of a Buzzfeed reporter during an e-mail exchange about an article, without seeking permission to access the data.

    That combination of vindictiveness and willingness to tap into user information provoked outrage on social-media sites on Tuesday, spawning the hashtag "#ubergate" on Twitter.

    Critics recounted a series of Uber privacy missteps, including a 2012 blog post in which a company official analysed anonymous ridership data in Washington and several other cities in an attempt to determine the frequency of overnight sexual liaisons by customers - which Uber dubbed "Rides of Glory".

    Last week's incident was the latest reminder about the potential for abuse as intimate information accumulates on the servers of tech companies, which have widely varying approaches to user privacy and face few legal barriers in how they use personal data.

    "We have never in history been at a point when we were more extortable," said Chris Hoofnagle, a law professor who specialises in online privacy at the University of California at Berkeley. "We have to think about how the service provider itself can be a threat."

    Uber officials have sought to distance themselves from Mr Michael's comments. Chief executive Travis Kalanick tweeted that they were "terrible", and Mr Michael issued an apologetic statement calling the remarks "wrong" and expressing regret.

    On Tuesday, the company said in a blog post: "Uber has a strict policy prohibiting all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver's data. The only exception to this policy is for a limited set of legitimate business purposes."