Why is your location more necessarily a secret than your financial records, past purchases, or the name of whom you married? We don’t freak out when a direct-mail catalog arrives for winter jackets three weeks after we bought a similar coat in a store, somehow cool with one retail chain selling our buying habits to another, but if a company tries to follow where we are in space and time, we go ballistic. To understand this paradoxical conundrum, let’s visit the current fistfight erupting between ride-sharing service Uber and tech’s leading journalist gossip site BuzzFeed.
How Uber works
If ever a flashy tech upstart seemed ripe for a backlash, it was Uber. Uber’s business model is brilliant: it has upended the taxi and limo business with a clever app that creates a multi-sided market between people who seek a car service and drivers willing to pick them up. If you need a ride, click on the Uber mobile app and you can select luxury cars in your area (Uber works with Google Maps location data); if instead you want to make money, buy or lease a nice car and Uber will beam you customers ready to go.
Uber sets prices for fares and extracts a 20% cut, but the cost of the ride is often well below that of car services. Perhaps because Uber launched near the peak of global recession in 2009, and helped riders save money while anyone could use it to bootstrap a job, it’s scaled rapidly to $18 billion in valuation and into 45 countries. Google has invested $258 million. Uber is testing new courier services and may soon compete with FedEx. Business Insider reports Uber is now taking in $1.5 billion a year in revenue. What’s not to like?
Well, first the name — Uber does sound like a douchey private-school kid’s idea of a travel service for rich people. Second, the top execs often act like bad boys in the press — Uber’s CEO cracked a joke to a GQ reporter that the service was so good at picking up women, he calls it Boob-er. And third, Uber’s head of business development recently got in a verbal fight with Silicon Valley reporter Sarah Lacy that has led to claims he planned to spend $1 million to hire opposition research teams to dig into Lacy’s personal life and spread dirt to discredit her.
A reporter got mad, then Scoble did too
We admit, that last claim was a doozy. That fight went like this: Lacy, a sometimes caustic reporter who rose to tech fame after repeatedly interrupting Mark Zuckerberg in a 2008 stage interview at SXSW, wrote a scathing piece calling Uber a bunch of asses for running ads in France promoting sexy, barely clothed women drivers (apparently unaware that sex is the basis for much of the advertising in France). Uber executive Emil Michael, incensed at what he perceived to be unfair journalism, vented about Lacy’s report at an off-the-record dinner event to BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith, and, perhaps fueled by a little wine, suggested that he would spend money to get back at Lacy’s reputation. Smith, who said he was unaware that dinner conversation was supposed to be off the record, immediately ran a story portraying Uber’s Michael as plotting dirty tricks against reporters. USA Today reporter Michael Wolff, the guy who got BuzzFeed into the dinner event, was there and believes Michael was just venting after a glass of vino, wrote an objective piece trying to calm everybody down … but nobody listened.
Silicon Valley and Twitter went ballistic in disgust, starting a drive telling people to delete their phone’s Uber apps; and tech guru Robert Scoble then posted on Facebook that Uber’s CEO should now resign.
Within this bouncing ball of scandal was the little-known news that investors in Lacy’s PandoDaily and Smith’s BuzzFeed are also apparently investors in Uber’s main ride-sharing competitor, Lyft. But never mind. Uber, a service designed by allegedly crass Silicon Valley boys to give the tech elite rides in fancy cars, has entered a PR nightmare realm where it is allegedly trying to crush a caustic reporter.
Expect the David Fincher film adaptation to win the Oscar in 2017.
The more interesting Uber location-tracking story
Behind all this back-and-forth over unfair sexism vs. bad reporting, Uber also has been criticized for a data-tracking feature in which its management can “spy” on the location of any rider. This story, also from BuzzFeed, tells of a reporter taking an Uber car to meet an Uber executive, who looked up from his phone when she arrived and said he could tell when she was coming by watching her on a map. (With Uber-esque hyperbole, the tracking feature is called internally “God View.”) “There you are,” he reportedly said. “I was tracking you.” BuzzFeed suggested this was a critical abuse of consumer privacy.
Now this is interesting. What are we to make of an app company based entirely on geo-location data about cars and riders tracking, well, where those riders in cars go?
We pose this question seriously, because if you think about it for a moment, location data is just another point tied to a consumer profile similar to his or her payment history or product purchases or interests. Imagine if a company executive in charge of finance about to meet a business customer looked up that customer’s track record of paying bills on time, to see if he faced another credit risk. Would that be a breach of privacy?
Or, what if you keep a file of your business partners’ interests to remind yourself how to act more personable in your next meeting (“Hey, Jane, great to see you again — how are those golf lessons you told me about?”)? Are you breaking a rule of privacy?
Have you ever snuck a peek at someone’s LinkedIn profile? Is that a bad thing?
Even Steve Jobs apologized about location
Information about human geography just feels different, and when companies play with it, they often get burned. In 2006, Google launched its Street View feature that shows photographs from the road level in its Maps program, and consumers freaked out; one Google photo caught a poor man leaving a strip club, and the rest of the online world wondered, what if that were me? And in 2011, no lesser an entity than Steve Jobs was forced to apologize publicly for an Apple iPhone feature that kept a 12-month history of a user’s locations. Apple said the tracking feature was used to more rapidly pinpoint location than GPS, thus making all those iPhone apps work more quickly, but consumers fretted the data stream could be assessed to learn dark things about anyone’s whereabouts.
The irony about such concerns is location data may eventually become the most useful thing you can give away to get better service, deals, or predictive offers. Sales of tablets, hot just two years ago, are plummeting while smartphones — the smaller devices you carry on your body always — continue to skyrocket. iPhone’s move to larger screens shows that true, single-device mobile functionality is what people wish to have on them, and for future communications to work, those devices will need to track where you are. If you don’t want your mobile screen filled with unwanted messages, location data could provide you with offers tied to your exact location in the mall during holiday shopping — a useful feature, but only if you give that data away. If you don’t want to be stuck in traffic, you have to give an app permission to ping your phone when the highway ahead shuts down in time for you make a quick exit — again, requiring location data be monitored for you to access that powerful utility.
For some reason, information about where we go or where we went just seems more personal. Perhaps giving away the interests that lie within our mind seems abstract and somehow unthreatening, while telling the world where our body resides brings up atavistic fears that our flesh might be destroyed.
But the future of technology is mobile. If we want to catch that ride, we’ll have to give away our location.