Uber creep: Company reportedly (secretly) tracked customers

Uber, the ride-sharing service which has rapidly spread across the globe, operating in more than 230 cities worldwide (including Atlanta), is frequently as controversial as it is popular, first with taxi drivers, then regulators and now with journalists -- and even customers.

On Friday, Uber executive Emil Michael, the company's senior vice president of business, suggested that the company hire a team of researchers to smear those journalists who had written unfavorably about the company, according to BuzzFeed's Ben Smith.

"Over dinner, [Michael] outlined the notion of spending 'a million dollars' to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists," Smith wrote. "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." (Michael later said that he believed the dinner was off the record, though Smith disputes that, and the company has since said that Michael's comments don't reflect official policy)

Smith also alleged, in the same post detailing Michael's dinner remarks, that Uber had accessed the personal travel information of a reporter, without her consent. Uber is now investigating. Uber is also reportedly able to track customers and Uber vehicles through a "God View" tool. Forbes reports that "an attendee at a launch party in Chicago in September 2011, says Uber treated guests to Creepy Stalker View, showing them the whereabouts and movements of 30 Uber users in New York in real time."

The company has access to rich data about a user -- their home and work addresses; where they go for drinks. The company has previously written about tracking certain kinds of ride patterns, including trips made "the morning after." On Tuesday, the company denounced any such privacy violations.

“Uber has a strict policy prohibiting all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver’s data," spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian wrote. "The only exception to this policy is for a limited set of legitimate business purposes.”

This development comes amidst continuing scrutiny of Uber's policies. In September, Atlanta taxi drivers sued Uber for operating as a taxi serivce without a license. “Uber has been operating in Atlanta with little concern about the safety of their passengers and zero concern for the laws that protect them,” Scott McCandliss, one of 13 cabbies and owners who filed the suit recently, said in a statement.

Uber was recently granted a two-year, "last chance" license in Pennsylvania, but was told to "abandon its anarchist ways" in order to continue operating legally in the state. Last month, its French service controversially announced a promotion pairing riders with "hot chick drivers."

But Uber, and its competing ride-sharing services, have experienced a rapid rise in popularity -- it entered in Atlanta in 2012 and, as of this writing, there are at least eight Uber drivers within miles of the AJC building. The company has many supporters.

Early Wednesday, the actor and entrepreneur Ashton Kutcher -- who has invested in Uber, Spotify and others; and sits on the board of advisors for Vox Media -- defended the company on Twitter.

Alternately, here's how to cancel your Uber account in seven steps.

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