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Sen. Franken questions Uber about 'troubling disregard' for user privacy

Minnesota Democrat wants answers in the wake of a report that an Uber executive monitored a reporter's movements on the ride-sharing service.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been asked to explain his company's policies. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Recent reports of Uber's lack of regard for user privacy has raised the attention of Sen. Al Franken, who has sent a letter to Travis Kalanick that asks the ride-sharing service's CEO to address the allegations.

The Minnesota Democrat, who chairs the Subcommittee On Privacy, Technology, and the Law, posted a letter [PDF] Wednesday saying that reports of an executive monitoring users' rides "suggest a troubling disregard for customers' privacy."

The letter comes a day after BuzzFeed reported that Uber was investigating allegations that Josh Mohrer, Uber's New York general manager, used a feature known as "God View" to track a BuzzFeed reporter without her knowledge. BuzzFeed reported Tuesday that Mohrer personally showed the reporter data on two occasions over the last two months that proved he was able to track her rides through Uber, which uses a smartphone app to connect riders with drivers.

Uber responded by updating its data privacy policy, which prohibits "all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver's data." Uber spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian wrote that the only exception was for "a limited set of legitimate business purposes," such as monitoring accounts for fraudulent activity addressing issues raised by the Uber community.

Franken's letter asks Kalanick to address 10 questions to clarify what he sees as inconsistencies in the company's privacy policies:

I am especially troubled because there appears to be evidence of practices inconsistent with the policy Ms. Hourajian articulated. It has been reported that a tool known as 'God view' is 'widely available to most Uber corporate employees' and allows employees to track the location of Uber customers who have requested car service. In at least one incident, a corporate employee reportedly admitted to using the tool to track a journalist. The journalist's permission had not been requested, and the circumstances of the tracking do not suggest any legitimate business purpose. Indeed, it appears that on prior occasions your company has condoned use of customers' data for questionable purposes.

The letter, which requests a response by December 15, comes on the heels of another Uber controversy in regards to the media. BuzzFeed ignited a firestorm of criticism Tuesday when it reported that Emil Michael, Uber senior vice president of business, suggested last week at a dinner that the company should consider hiring a team of researchers to " dig up dirt on its critics in the media."

Uber said in an emailed statement it would respond to Franken's letter in the coming weeks.

A frequent watchdog of consumers' privacy rights, Franken has in the past pressed tech companies such Apple and Google for app privacy policies that clearly explain what consumer information is being collected. He has also raised concerns that the growing use of facial recognition technology could potentially lead to abuse by law enforcement officials to the detriment of US residents.

Updated 11/20 at 2 p.m. PT with Uber comment.