Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for February 20th, 2017

A History of Uber Since January 2014, in Excerpts

Carmel DeAmicis, reporting for Pando in January 2014:

Last month, Pando reported that an Uber driver in San Francisco had been accused of verbally and physically assaulting a passenger, James Alva. According to Alva, the driver called him a “dirty Mexican faggot” and then struck him several times when Alva tried to take a photo of him and his license plate to send to Uber.

The company confirmed that the alleged attacker was an Uber driver. However, since the police did not arrest the driver when called to the scene, the company chose not to investigate the incident further. At the time, Uber said it would temporarily suspend the driver, but not permanently ban him from driving for the company. [Updated: Since this post was published, Uber emailed to say the company deactivated this driver’s account from the system in December. Uber has not yet commented as to what prompted this change of heart.]

Throughout, Uber insisted that the driver had passed their standard background checks.

However, Pando has since learned that the driver — 28-year-old San Francisco resident Daveea Whitmire — has a criminal record, including felony and misdemeanor charges, and at least one felony conviction involving prison time. How, or why, Uber missed — or ignored — this criminal history is unclear.

In February 2014, GQ writer Mickey Rapkin spent a week as an Uber driver and interviewed CEO Travis Kalanick:

Not to make assumptions, but Kalanick probably wasn’t the first kid in his class to lose his virginity. But the way he talks now—which is large—he’s surely making up for lost time. When I tease him about his skyrocketing desirability, he deflects with a wisecrack about women on demand: Yeah, we call that Boob-er.

Gross.

Alicia Lu, writing for Bustle in October 2014:

Everyone’s favorite car service just had a major lapse in judgment. It seems that someone was thinking with their stick shift: Uber Lyon’s promotion with the Avions de Chasse app let customers be chauffeured around by amateur models instead of its regular drivers. The premise of it alone sounds pretty gross, but upon a closer look at the app’s website and the whole operation looks like the brainchild of a horny teenage boy and his older web developer friend. Coming to their senses, Uber has taken down any trace of the app and the promotion from its websites.

Matthew Williams reporting for Boing Boing in November 2014:

A few years ago, Uber posted a blog entry titled “Rides of Glory.” Uber searched its data, looking for anyone who took an Uber between 10pm and 4am on a Friday or Saturday night. Uber then searched that data for how many of the same people took another ride about four to six hours later — either from, at, or near the previous nights’ drop-off point.

“The greater the male/female ratio, the more likely that neighborhood had a Ride of Glory.”

What does this mean? Uber can track one-night stands.

Uber pulled their March 2012 post shortly after various news outlets and blogs started reporting on it in 2014.

Ben Smith of Buzzfeed in November 2014:

A senior executive at Uber suggested that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media — and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company.

The executive, Emil Michael, made the comments in a conversation he later said he believed was off the record. In a statement through Uber Monday evening, he said he regretted them and that they didn’t reflect his or the company’s views.

Sarah Lacy of Pando was the female journalist in question:

And lest you think this was just a rogue actor and not part of the company’s game plan, let me remind you Kalanick telegraphed exactly this sort of thing when he sat on stage at the Code Conference last spring and said he was hiring political operatives whose job would be to “throw mud.” I naively thought he just meant Taxi companies. Let me also remind you: This is a company you trust with your personal safety every single time you use it. Let me also remind you: The executive in question has not been fired.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Emil Michael still works at Uber.

Johana Bhuiyan and Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed in November 2014:

Early this November, one of the reporters of this story, Johana Bhuiyan, arrived to Uber’s New York headquarters in Long Island City for an interview with Josh Mohrer, the general manager of Uber New York. Stepping out of her vehicle — an Uber car — she found Mohrer waiting for her. “There you are,” he said, holding his iPhone and gesturing at it. “I was tracking you.”

Mohrer never asked for permission to track her.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Mohrer still works at Uber.

Johana Bhuiyan in a January 2016 followup article:

As part of the settlement, Uber has agreed to pay a penalty of $20,000 to the attorney general’s office for its failure to report unauthorized third-party access to drivers’ personal information in a timely fashion. The ride-hail company has also agreed to adopt more rigorous privacy and security practices. These practices include password-protecting and encrypting the geo-location data of Uber riders and drivers, limiting access to that information to designated employees with “legitimate business purposes”, and incorporating multi-factor authentication and other “protective technologies” to secure personal information.

Shortly before this settlement was announced, the New York Times reported that Uber was valued at $62.5 billion. At that point, $20,000 becomes just another business expense.

Charlie Warzel and Johana Bhuiyan, in a March 2016 Buzzfeed report:

According to data provided by Uber to BuzzFeed News, the company received five claims of rape and “fewer than” 170 claims of sexual assault directly related to an Uber ride as inbound tickets to its customer service database between December 2012 and August 2015.

Uber provided these numbers as a rebuttal to screenshots obtained by BuzzFeed News. The images that were provided by a former Uber customer service representative (CSR) to BuzzFeed News, and subsequently confirmed by multiple other parties, show search queries conducted on Uber’s Zendesk customer support platform from December 2012 through August 2015. Several individual tickets shown in the screenshots have also been confirmed.

[…]

In one screenshot, a search query for “sexual assault” returns 6,160 Uber customer support tickets. A search for “rape” returns 5,827 individual tickets. Other variations of the terms yield similarly high returns: A search for “assaulted” shows 3,524 tickets, while “sexually assaulted” returns 382 results.

Gabriel Samuels, in a May 2016 report for the Independent:

Uber drivers are accused of sexually assaulting or raping customers almost three times a month, according to new figures which have outraged rape campaigners.

Freedom of Information data obtained by The Sun newspaper revealed 32 assault claims were made against employees of the taxi-hailing app in London over the past twelve months, equal to one every eleven days.

The figure represents more than a fifth of all claims against taxi and car-hire drivers filed to 14 UK police forces last year, which totalled at 154 allegations including attacks in minicabs and chauffeur vehicles.

Ellie Kaufman, in a June 2016 article for Quartz:

What Uber giveth, Uber can taketh away. On May 9, Uber and Lyft stopped operating in Austin, Texas, after spending over $10 million to lobby Austin’s citizens against a city ordinance that would require ride-sharing drivers to get background checks. Voters upheld the ordinance, and the two companies pulled out of the city two days later.

[…]

In 2015 alone, 27 incidents of sexual assault or rape in Austin were reported where a driver of a ride-sharing service assaulted a passenger, according to data from the Austin Police Department. Meanwhile, only 9.2% of victims report sexual assault to the police in Texas, according to the 2015 Texas Statewide Sexual Assault Prevalence Study, and 68% of sexual assaults go unreported nationally. This means that while 27 incidents of sexual violence were reported, many more could have occurred undetected.

Mitchel Broussard, in a December 2016 MacRumors article:

A recent update to ride-hailing app Uber is generating a negative reaction online, with customers concerned over the company’s decision to track their location “from the time of trip request through five minutes after the trip ends,” no matter if the app is open or not. The only option now available for users to negate the background tracking of their location is to go into iOS Settings > Privacy > Location Services and opt-in to “Never” allow Uber location access through the iPhone.

Will Evans, in a December 2016 article for Reveal:

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, Uber insisted it had strict policies that prohibited employees from accessing users’ trip information with limited exceptions.

But five former Uber security professionals told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that the company continued to allow broad access even after those assurances.

Susan J. Fowler, yesterday:

As most of you know, I left Uber in December and joined Stripe in January. I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past couple of months about why I left and what my time at Uber was like. It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind, so here we go.

[…]

After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird. On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.

[…]

Over the next few months, I began to meet more women engineers in the company. As I got to know them, and heard their stories, I was surprised that some of them had stories similar to my own. Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported, and had reported inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company. It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being “his first offense”, and it certainly wasn’t his last. Within a few months, he was reported once again for inappropriate behavior, and those who reported him were told it was still his “first offense”. The situation was escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated, and still nothing was done.

There is a pattern here; expect more current and ex-employees to report similar incidents.

As I was assembling these excerpts, Mike Isaac of the New York Times got ahold of a company-wide email sent by Kalanick:

It’s been a tough 24 hours. I know the company is hurting, and understand everyone has been waiting for more information on where things stand and what actions we are going to take.

Memo to Travis: nobody cares about the company itself. It’s not hurting; people have been hurt. What matters is that this stuff keeps happening, with apparently little consequence for those responsible.

Kalanick promises in the email to investigate everything Fowler disclosed and Uber’s overall attitude towards diversity in the workplace. He also discloses, for the first time, that 15% of their tech staff is female. This compares to 15% at Twitter (not 10%, as Kalanick claims), 17% at Facebook, 19% at Google (not 18%, as Kalanick claims), and 23% at Apple.

There is a deep, festering, and toxic workplace environment at Uber. It is the manifestation of its bro-ey CEO that doesn’t think that regulations should apply to his company. Creating a workplace that encourages diversity in both gender and ethnicity doesn’t seem to be very high on Kalanick’s priorities.

This is not okay. This has never been okay. Yet the only incident callous enough, in the public’s eyes, to trigger a mass boycott of Uber was when they dropped surge pricing at JFK airport after taxi drivers there went on strike following Donald Trump’s immigrant-restricting executive order.

I absolutely agree with showing support for those put at risk by sweeping policies from big, institutional powers. In this case, Uber’s drivers ought to have joined New York’s taxi drivers in protest, so users’ boycotting of the service is a straightforward way to protest Uber. But the company’s record on women’s rights, in particular, has been appalling — I didn’t even touch on rampant racism. From rape allegations made against drivers to tracking and “throwing mud” against female journalists, and an internal culture that tolerates sexism to an egregious degree, it’s clear that we must respond in force in this case, too.

So grab your phone, and delete Uber.

Update: Added the November 2014 “one night stand” post and the June 2016 report from Austin, thanks to Ryan Jones.