Uber says employee tracked journalist because she was late

Sen. Al Franken, who raised concerns about the ride-sharing startup's privacy policies, says he is concerned about the lack of detail in Uber's response.

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Uber says it has strict policies protecting customer privacy. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Image

Addressing concerns that it didn't respect the privacy of its customers, Uber said Monday that one of its employees checked a journalist's ride on the service because she was 30 minutes late to a meeting the two had scheduled.

The revelation came in response to a series of questions related to the company's privacy policies posed to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick last month by Sen. Al Franken. The Minnesota Democrat raised his concerns after it was revealed that an employee twice used a feature known as "God View" to track a BuzzFeed reporter on the service without her knowledge.

Uber's letter [PDF], which was signed by Katherine M. Tassi, the company's managing counsel for privacy, defended the company's privacy track record and echoed a previous statement that customer data is only accessed for legitimate business purposes.

"Uber has always had a strong culture of protecting rider information, and Uber prohibits employees from accessing rider personal information except for legitimate business purposes," Uber said in the letter, which was published by Franken's office.

Uber's letter to Franken explained that Josh Mohrer, Uber's New York general manager, accessed the journalist's account for the first time while responding to a communication sent by the reporter. On the second occasion, the reporter was "30 minutes late, and Mr. Mohrer wanted to meet her in the lobby to escort her to the meeting location, so he pulled up her trip to see her arrival time," according to Uber's letter, which went on to say that Mohrer revealed his actions to the reporter out of a sense of honesty.

The three-page letter also said press reports surrounding another executive's comments about investigating journalists generated "misperceptions about how Uber employees treat the personal data of Uber riders." The same week that Mohrer's actions were revealed, BuzzFeed reported that Emil Michael, Uber senior vice president of business, suggested at a dinner that the company should consider hiring a team of researchers to " dig up dirt on its critics in the media."

Uber denied misusing journalists' account information but said that Mohrer had been disciplined for his actions.

Franken, who chairs the Subcommittee On Privacy, Technology, and the Law, said he was concerned about the lack of detail offered by Uber, which uses a smartphone app to connect riders with drivers.

"Quite frankly, they did not answer many of the questions I posed directly to them," Franken said in a statement. "Most importantly, it still remains unclear how Uber defines legitimate business purposes for accessing, retaining, and sharing customer data. I will continue pressing for answers to these questions."

Uber declined to comment on Franken's response.