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Why Uber is under attack.

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Online ride-hailing service, Uber has of late been trying to weather the storm with attacks from seemingly all directions. The company which is valued at over $60 billion has been suffering a barrage of attacks and criticisms about its modus operandi. From accusations of blatantly flouting laws governing taxis, to benefitting from allegedly stolen data, Uber’s executives and legal team are bracing themselves for a tough time ahead.

Trump factor.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned from US president Trump’s economic advisory council which comprises 17 captains of industry like Tesla Founder and CEO Elon Musk. This came after concerted pressure from Uber staff and users who heavily criticized Mr. Kalanick and Uber as a whole of trying to benefit from an executive order by Trump that temporarily banned immigrants, refugees and citizens from Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Iran, Iraq and Syria. At the tail end of protests on Saturday 28th January against that executive order, Uber twitted that its surge pricing was off. This was seen as Uber making the most of a less than ideal situation. This led to #DeleteUber being the trending hashtag that weekend. Reportedly 200,000 users deleted their accounts and I hazard a guess that these users went straight for Uber’s rival Lyft.

Prejudiced corporate culture.

Susan Fowler, a reliability engineer at Uber quit her job in December 2016 after about 13 months. This is because she claims she was sexual harassed by her bosses from the get go. Though she reported the matter to the HR manager and other senior management staff, her claims were never adequately addressed. She was told that her boss was a top performer at the company and that it was an innocent mistake. After numerous complaints, she decided to quit and has a new job at technology company Stripe. She noted that since she joined Uber in November 2015, the number of female personnel has dropped from 25 percent to a meager less than 6 percent. This can be attributed to the sexism that seems to plague the tech giant. Uber has hired a legal team to look into her claims, which she documented in her blog in an article titled “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber”.

Uber’s senior vice president of engineering Amit Singhal was asked to resign by the company’s CEO one year into the job. This is after Uber was informed of sexual harassment accusations which were levelled against Mr. Singhal by a female employee at Google where he was vice president of search. He resigned from Google in February 2016 ,after 15 years.

Greyball.

Uber has been using software called Greyball as part of its violation of terms of service (VTOS) program. This software reportedly uses geolocation, credit card and other data from users to identify and side step authorities who are investigating Uber for breaking the law in areas where the ride-hailing service is not approved by law or banned altogether.

Greyball identifies and tags users who are linked to law enforcement organizations based on geofence data, credit card information, social media profiles and other data that can be found on the Internet. When a tagged user hails for a ride, Uber serves up a different version of the app which shows ghost cars or even shows that cars are unavailable. However, if a tagged user manages to get a request to a driver, Uber calls the driver with instructions to cancel the request.

In a rebuttal, Uber said “This program denies ride requests to users who are violating our terms of service — whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers.” . Perhaps the Greyball program was created with the intention of protecting drivers from violent attacks in countries like France, India and Kenya but it has allegedly been used to evade law enforcement officers which makes its legality not only a grey area but also brings to the fore other ethical issues.

Google suit.

Google‘s self-driving car program currently a subsidiary known as Waymo has sued Uber after alleging that Uber is using technology stolen from Waymo to grow its autonomous car program.

Anthony Levandowski who worked in Google’s self-driving cars program which began in 2009 quit in January 2016 without notice after 9 years at the tech giant. He immediately co-founded Otto, a self-driving truck startup with three other ex-Google employees. Google alleges that Levandowski downloaded confidential information before leaving. In August 2016, Uber acquired Otto in a $680 million deal. In December 2016, Waymo was inadvertently copied in an email which had schematics of Uber’s Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology which is crucial to the self-driving cars.

Uber’s on its part says that Otto’s LiDAR technology was acquired from Tyto which has a patent for a LiDAR scanner  .However if Google can proved that Uber’s LiDAR technology was stolen intellectual property, the Uber faces a suit that could potentially cost it millions or billions of dollars.

 

 

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