Uber is driving data

Most people, if not everyone, have experienced the results of ad tracking: YouTube ads reflecting a recent Google search, Google ads based off an Amazon purchase… the list, of course, goes on—and now, it will include any rides taken with ride-sharing app Uber. Earlier this month in October, Uber Technologies, Inc. announced that, in select markets, marketers will be able to target consumers with ads “based on where they have been and where they are going.”[1] Additionally, Uber also has plans to allow a single brand sponsor an entire trip. Called journey ads, these will “be sold on a per-trip basis…[and] let brands show a user different ads at three points in the user’s trip: while waiting for a car, while riding in the car and upon reaching the destination.”[2]

One of the concerns raised with Uber’s decision was of privacy. Most people use the app and its service for trips where they cannot drive themselves, such as to receive non-emergency medical care, abortion clinics, religious centers, or any other potentially sensitive location. Chris Gilliard, the Just Tech Fellow at the Social Science Research Council that “[t]his news reaffirms that Uber is a surveillance company masquerading as a transportation company.”[3] Brandi Bennett of The Beckage Firm, a data privacy law firm, agreed; she said, “Precise geolocation data is what I call ‘digital plutonium’. When you have geolocation data, you can unravel people’s lives.”[4]

In response, Uber asserted that the information it would share with advertisers was actually limited to “aggregated information or data necessary to assess the effectiveness of campaigns,” and that users would be able to “opt out of certain disclosures in the company’s Privacy Center.”[5] However, though Uber has also promised that it would not allow for ad targeting based on specific medical keywords, anonymized location data can easily be de-anonymized; researchers in Europe have already proven that they are able to “correctly re-identify 99.98% of individuals in anonymized data sets with just 15 demographic attributes.”[6]

As a business decision, the addition of Uber’s journey ads was an economically sound decision. However, there are still too many data privacy and security issues that have, at least so far, gone inadequately addressed. For some, this may be a move that they either do not care about, or think to be inconsequential to their daily lives. But few people understand the true weight of a risk until it’s too late, and fewer truly understand how much of their personal privacy is being stripped away as their search information, online presence, and now, their real-life destinations is gathered and sold.

We live in an increasingly digitalized world. Information—and thereby privacy—has become the new currency within it.

[1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/uber-to-let-marketers-target-riders-by-destination-11666184402?mod=hp_lista_pos2

[2] Id.

[3] https://www.vice.com/en/article/v7vxv8/uber-will-start-serving-you-targeted-ads-based-on-where-you-go

[4] WSJ.

[5] Id.

[6] https://techcrunch.com/2019/07/24/researchers-spotlight-the-lie-of-anonymous-data/

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