Uber Corp hires former privacy chief of IBM to conduct assessment amid controversy

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Uber is hiring Harriet Pearson and law firm Hogan Lovells in an attempt to stamp out growing controversy around riders’ privacy. Photo: Reuter

In a move straight out of the PR crisis management handbook, Uber has hired a heavyweight data privacy expert to conduct a review of its practices amid growing controversy and criticism.

The San-Francisco-based ride-sharing app start-up announced in a blog post that Uber had engaged the services of Harriet Pearson — formerly IBM’s chief privacy officer — and her colleagues at law firm Hogan Lovells to “conduct an in-depth review and assessment of [Uber’s] existing data privacy program and recommend any needed enhancements”.

Pearson said in a phone call that she will work for Uber as a legal adviser. An Uber representative declined to comment beyond the blog post.

Criticism of Uber practices grew following remarks by executive Emil Michael.

Uber has been grappling with a growing controversy after one of its executives, Emil Michael, recently said the company would be willing to pay to look into reporters’ lives. Another Uber manager is also under investigation after using a tool in the app known as God View to track a journalist at online publication BuzzFeed without her permission, a person with knowledge of the matter has said.

The incidents have prompted a wave of criticism. Minnesota’s Senator Al Franken, a Democrat who chairs the Senate subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law, sent a letter yesterday to Uber asking for answers on the startup’s privacy policies.

Elsewhere, journalists and commentators have wondered whether Uber’s dangerous win-at-all-cost attitude is emblematic of start-up culture when blown up to a global scale.

Some consumers have said they have deleted the Uber app from their smartphones following the incidents. Many have also taken to social media to promote the hashtags #BoycottUber and #deleteuber.

“Trust founded on confidentiality and information security lies at the very heart of Uber’s business and we will be working with the team to review and reinforce where appropriate its policies and systems,” Pearson said in an e-mailed statement, adding that she is an Uber user.

Uber had clarified its privacy policy earlier this week, saying employees would only access data for issues like monitoring for fraudulent activity and solving problems.

“The policy is also clear that access to rider and driver accounts is being closely monitored and audited by data security specialists on an ongoing basis,” the company said in a blog post earlier this week. “Any violations of the policy will result in disciplinary action, including the possibility of termination and legal action.”

Henry Sapiecha

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