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  (Source: Uber)
Executive was mad about reporter publishing details of recent sexual, physical assaults on passengers by drivers

Uber is at the center of a bizarre firestorm of controversy after one of its senior executives appeared to reveal plans to spy on and harass the families of reporters who criticize its smartphone-driven taxi/ride-sharing service.
 
I. Uber Exec -- Don't Criticize Us, Or We'll Stalk You
 
To give a brief synopsis of this bizarre and outrageous story for those short on time:
  • Uber drivers have been accused of raping women
     
  • Uber PR team looks to discredit those women, claiming were "drunk" or "dressed provocatively"
     
  • Uber driver with a felony history reportedly commits a brutal hate crime against a gay passenger
     
  • Uber executive proposes stalking and harassment of the family of one of his company's top critics, a female journalist
     
  • Executive calls that journalist to apologize on a private line she had not given him.
     
  • He refuses to say how he got that number
     
  • He demands apology be off the record
     
  • He later emails her a short apology when she refuses to accept the off the record phone conversation
     
  • Uber executives track reporters via a "God View" app
Many of these recent events began with bizarre comments made at a recent business dinner.

Emil Michael
Emil Michael, a senior executive at Über threaten to stalk and harass the families of reporters who dared to criticize his company or the crimes its employees commit. [Image Source: Business Insider]

At the dinner, senior executive Emil Michael -- who apparently thought he was speaking off the record -- told those within earshot of potential plans to hire spies to stalk and harass journalists who dared criticize his darling company.  And his plot wasn't limited just to the journalists themselves.  He also threatened to use his spies to stalk and harass their families.
 
Buzzfeed News reporter Ben Smith reports:

Over dinner, [Michael] outlined the notion of spending "a million dollars" to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into "your personal lives, your families," and give the media a taste of its own medicine.

Many took it as a joke in bad taste.  
 
II. Targeting a Female Reporter
 
But then things took a disturbing turn when he singled out a female reporter he apparently loathed, a reporter he felt might deserve such harassment.  The reporter in question was Sarah Lacy, an author and editor at PandoDaily, a Silicon Valley blog.
 
Sarah Lacy
Silicon Valley journalist Sarah Lacy was on the receiving end of these scary threats.

Ms. Lacy had in recent blogs criticized Über for a culture of "sexism and misogyny".  In particularly she had criticized the company's PR team for victim blaming.  After incidents of drivers sexually assaulting female passengers came to light, the PR team -- according to Ms. Lacy -- look to "discredit female passengers who accuse drivers of attacking them by whispering that they were 'drunk' or 'dressed provocatively.'"
 
Ms. Lacy had also reported on another recent incident where a driver with a history of felonies was hired without background check.  That driver would later commit a brutal physical assault against a passenger, making profane statements against him as he attacked.  The attack appeared to be provoked by the driver's disdain for the passenger's sexuality (the passenger was a homosexual male).
 
In light of a Buzzfeed News report that Uber was working with a French prostitution ("escort" in more refined terms) service, she had written that she was deleting her Uber app for good, writing:
 
I don't know how many more signals we need that the company simply doesn’t respect us or prioritize our safety.
 
Emil Michael was livid at Ms. Lacy.  Buzzfeed News writes:
 
At the dinner, Michael expressed outrage at Lacy’s column and said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. He said that he thought Lacy should be held "personally responsible" for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted.
 
Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber's dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.
 
Michael at no point suggested that Uber has actually hired opposition researchers, or that it plans to. He cast it as something that would make sense, that the company would be justified in doing.
 
Apparently Michael felt empowered to make such outrageous comments -- whether truthful or otherwise -- as he thought things said at the gathering were strictly off the record under the journalistic code of ethics.  
 
The meeting was a gathering of powerful figures held at Manhattan’s posh Waverly Inn.  Among those in attendance were Uber’s CEO and founder Travis Kalanick; actor Edward Norton; and Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post.  The dinner was hosted by a former adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron, Ian Osborne.  Mr. Osborner works as a consultant for Uber.

Uber fancy SUV
Über has used ruthless tactics to outpace the competition.  Some say it has a culture of "sexism" and "misogyny." [Image Source: Uber on Facebook]

Journalist Michael Wolff was invited to the event and he invited an unnamed Buzzfeed News editor along for the ride.  The bad news for Uber was that the Buzzfeed News employee was never told the dinner was off record, and never agreed to keep the outrageous things said at the dinner secret.  In so many words, "What happened in Vegas, didn't stay in Vegas."
 
The news came as a shock to Ms. Lacy, even in light of her increasingly negative view of the company's antics.  She recalls being in horror when a Buzzfeed News editor called her to get a comment on the story they were writing -- a story that prominently featured Michael's threats against her.  She recalls:

In that moment outside an Indian restaurant in London, I stood numb listening to Smith asking me if I had a comment, and I thought of my kids. They were somewhere covered in kitten and dinosaur pajamas giggling and running through the house in a last ditch effort to fight bedtime. Maybe they were looking up at the moon, remembering how many times I’ve told them I’d always be somewhere looking at the same moon even if I couldn’t be there to rock them.

I had two thoughts. The first was: What possible comment could I give Smith to sum up the terror I felt over an attack at my family?

Michael called Ms. Lacy on a private line -- supposedly to apologize -- but he demanded the apology be off the record.  She writes that she had not given him her private cell phone number, but that somehow -- maybe via his spies -- he had already obtained it.  When she refused, he bid her farewell and hung up.  He later wrote her an email stating:

Dear Sarah,

I wanted to apologize to you directly — I am sorry.  I was at an event and was venting, but what I said was never intended to describe actions that would ever be undertaken by me or my company toward you or anyone else.  I was definitively wrong and I feel terrible about any distress I have caused you. Again, I am sorry.

So Mr. Michael claims that this was all just fantastical ponderings and not a serious plot against the female journalist.
 
III. Uber Claims It's Not Stalking Female Journalists, Then Admits That it Might Be
 
But the company has since admitted that Michael's comments might not have been hyperbole as he suggests.  It turns out Uber really does have a secret app that that only its top-level executives can access.  It calls this app "God View" and uses it to track journalists.  This was first hinted at in a piece by Medium editor Peter Simms, who claimed Uber employees admitted to tracking him after press events.  In light of recent events that account has taken a disturbing new twist.
 
Uber Ride Share
Uber admits its executives have access to a special app called "God View", which allows them to track where specific passengers went. [Image Source: Uber on Facebook]

Buzzfeed News confirms it experienced this as well, writing:

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.

TIME reports that Uber -- a company backed the Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos and the Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) (among others) -- apologized for this "God View" app and says it is investigating its executives.  The report states:
 
Uber said Tuesday that it is investigating its top New York executive for tracking a BuzzFeed News reporter without her permission in violation of what the transit giant says has long been its privacy policy. The company also published its privacy policy for the first time on Tuesday, though it said the policy had always been in effect.
 
Recall, this story comes hot on the heels of reports that Uber was using dirty tactics to stifle Lyft -- using burn phones and secret agents who hitched rides which were really a ruse to try to woo Lyft drivers into quitting and joining Uber.  And, of course, what really touched it off were reports that drivers had raped women, and in at least one case, had assaulted a gay passenger in an apparent hate crime.

As for Michael, he was one of the company's brightest stars.  He sits on a board that advises the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and he came to the company's executive team from Klout.  He was described as "one of the top deal guys in the Valley."

Emil Michael Grinning
Emil Michael was a star at the company and considered a "top deal guy". [Image Source: Bloomberg]

His attitude is not wholly unique.  Silicon Valley internet startups have some track record of playing dirty.  Facebook, Inc. (FB) was busted for paying members of the media for secret attacks on rival Google Inc. (GOOG).  The Hewlett-Packard Comp. (HPQ) spied on reporters via pretexting, trying to ferret out sources of leaks.

Still, this incident is perhaps the lowest of lows, and the full story is only begin to come out.

Emil Michael has created a very dangerous situation for his firm, exposing its deep seeded malicious streak.  But the worst part is that he by no means single-handedly made this mess.  After all his aggressive and cavalier attitude seems to reflect his company's growing scandals -- and past comments by other company leaders.

It's worth noting that none of the other Uber executives at the dinner appeared to have any objections to his plan, which borders on criminal harassment and stalking.  Now the world has caught a glimpse of the ugly side of Uber.

Sources: Buzzfeed News, PandoDaily, TIME, The Verge





"My sex life is pretty good" -- Steve Jobs' random musings during the 2010 D8 conference













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