At a private dinner Friday night, Emil Michael, Uber's senior vice president of business, suggested that the company should hire a team of journalists and opposition researchers to counter bad press and even attack members of the media that criticize the company.
Michael, who previously worked for Klout, the website and mobile app that uses social media analytics to rank users according to online social influence, suggested spending "a million dollars" on this team, which would look into "your personal lives, your families." Michael made the statements in front of a crowd of influential New Yorkers at Manhattan's Waverly Inn last week.
Michael specifically mentioned that such a plan could be used to spread personal details about the life of Sarah Lacy, the editor-in-chief of PandoDaily, a Silicon Valley website whose coverage of Uber has been far from positive.
Michael said at the dinner that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers, adding that Lacy should be held "personally responsible" for any woman who deleted the Uber app and then was sexually assaulted.
BuzzFeed broke the story about Michael's remarks on Monday after one of the news organization's editors was invited to the dinner by another journalist. Michael apologized to Lacy that night on Twitter.
He also released a statement that said he regretted his comments and that they were not a reflection of his or the company's views.
"The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner — borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for — do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company's views or approach. They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them," Michael wrote.
In the media storm that followed, Uber CEO and founder Travis Kalanick distanced himself from the blunder. Kalanick, who was in attendance at the dinner on Friday, was silent until Tuesday afternoon when he called his vice president's comments "terrible" in a "13-tweet Twitterstorm" published by BuzzFeed.
1/ Emil's comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company.
— travis kalanick (@travisk)November 18, 2014
Kalanick has yet to discipline or fire anyone at the company despite many on social media calling for Michael's resignation.
Firing Emil Michael isn't enough. He should be blackballed in SV, and Uber's CEO should resign.
— Kevin Kelleher (@kpkelleher)November 18, 2014
Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy watchdog, has spoken out strongly against the company, describing Uber as "out of control," and calling for investigations by the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general into the company's data collection practices.
"This is a company that will do anything to achieve its financial goals," Chester told VICE News. "Whether that is stepping on taxi drivers, twisting the arms of regulators or spying on journalists or trying to ruin their reputations."
"The fact that this comment came from the company's vice president shows that Uber has a major ethical deficit in its leadership and obviously in its business," he added.
While Michael's comments have been criticized by many, Uber is not the only company engaging in public data mining practices.
"The holy grail for data gathering is finding out what people do in their neighborhoods. If you can record and influence decision making in local communities it can be used to drive people into the stores," Chester explained.
Uber is not shy about discussing their data mining practices. In a long blog post on their website — complete with graphs, data visualization maps, and algebra — the company showed "how Uber can use Bayesian statistics and where you get dropped off, to predict where you're going three out of four times." The company said their data analysis can work out "which businesses Uber riders like to patronize. What kind of food? Which airports, which hotels?" The value of such information to third parties is obvious.
Chester pointed out that the company is advertising for more data mining positions like this one, which, among other tasks, requires a marketing manager to "mine data and analytics at the rider level to gain a better understanding of their usage behaviors, including impacts of current marketing strategies."
The United States currently has no comprehensive data privacy law, although there are rules that protect children's data, as well as medical and credit information.
'People should think twice about using a service that stores and harvests your geographic and other information for companies and the government to use.'
"There are no data boundaries and companies like Uber have a free rein in accessing all this information, which is why the states and fed government need to act," Chester said. "But short of that, people should think twice about using a service that stores and harvests your geographic and other information for companies and the government to use."
Uber's spokeswoman, Nairi Hourdajian, released a statement countering Michael's comments, saying that Uber does not do "oppo research" of any sort on journalists. She said the company has clear policies against executives looking at the Uber profiles of journalists.
"Any such activity would be clear violations of our privacy and data access policies," Hourdajian said in an email to BuzzFeed. "Access to and use of data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes. These policies apply to all employees. We regularly monitor and audit that access."
Chester said the company was "channelling Richard Nixon" by threatening Lacy and other journalists.
"It's a company that will resort to dirty tricks and violate the first amendment against the public and journalists. They should be ashamed and condemned. The least they could do to make amends for the comments would be to donate money to an independent investigative journalism organization," Chester said.
Lacy wasn't the only one upset by Uber's practices. A BuzzFeed reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, also revealed that Uber's general manager had accessed her personal data twice during an interview with the company during a discussion of Uber policies.
Over the summer, the company faced protests in dozens of European cities from taxi drivers upset about the threat the company poses to their business. Uber has also faced attacks on the legality of its business. Uber, however, has often been defiant in the face of these issues, and the company again seemed unperturbed after the latest uproar.
Despite the apology from Michael to Lacy, PandoDaily editor Paul Carr posted a screenshot of a tweet from Uber's New York general manager, which has since been deleted.
Follow Olivia Crellin on Twitter: @OliviaCrellin