(REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)
(REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

Collecting and analyzing information on its drivers’ and riders’ movements is how Uber gets rides to appear in the right part of town at exactly the right time, which is precisely what many people love about the ride-hailing app.

But all that data gives the six-year-old company tremendous power. And a recent report may raise questions for consumers about how much they can trust the company with all that personal information. On that, Uber might have a tougher challenge than most, given the reputation it has accrued for playing to win at all costs.

An article from BuzzFeed this week alleged that an Uber executive floated the idea of hiring opposition researchers to dig up information on particularly critical journalists. But it needn’t have gone to such great lengths to get dirt -- its vast data stores might already contain that sort of insight. In fact, Buzzfeed also alleged that the general manager of Ubers New York City operations tapped into the user profile of one of its reporters, without the reporter’s permission, “to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies.”

It’s unclear exactly how much data and what kind may have been accessed by Uber's New York general manager. BuzzFeed wouldn’t comment further.

Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Post, but spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian told Buzzfeed that "access to and use of data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes." These policies, she said, apply to all employees and the company regularly monitors internal access to that data.

But Uber, which has quickly grown from a start-up to a company worth $18 billion in 46 countries, is facing a challenge that has become common to almost every tech company: convincing the public that they’re protecting user data while, at the same time, harnessing it aggressively to deliver hyper-customized services. Uber has made a lot of enemies as it has grown -- among regulators, those in the taxi industry, and among the media. And this week's reports raise the specter of Uber having data on those critics, too.

Uber’s privacy policy, which users consent to when they download the app, seems to place few specific limits on what it can do with usage data. "We may use Usage Information for a variety of purpose [sic],” it reads, “including to enhance or otherwise improve the Services."

"It's a very broad privacy policy," says Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Washington, D.C., based Center for Digital Democracy, giving the company “a sort of blanket use of data."

What the company does with the data has been a point of contention as Uber tries to set up shop in cities across the United States. Local officials argue that Uber’s refusal to share trip data means they can’t keep tabs on how the company is serving the public. On that point, Uber has been adamant. Last year, after the District demanded that Uber hand over its rider information, the firm's chief executive Travis Kalanick posted on the company blog, saying, “Tell Mayor Gray there will be no snooping on Uber’s trip data!”

But Ron Linton, Chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, which has battled with Uber over data, says Uber’s stance is less about consumer privacy than it is about competitive advantage. “The greater part of their business plan,” says Linton, “is that they're going to amass the greatest database of consumer habits that the world has ever seen.”

Uber owns no cars and hires no drivers. In many ways, the whole company is a data play. Its systems know where you’ve come from, your favorite haunts and how you pay. The company’s “Math department,” as Kalanick calls it, collects user behavior over time into a “God view” that allows them to know exactly which neighborhood will need more cars on a rainy day.

Julia Horwitz, Consumer Protection Counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says there are some positive aspects to Uber’s privacy policy, including how it breaks out procedures for sharing information with third parties. But the company, she says, also left itself with “room for interpretation.”

Uber has used demonstrations of its data-science savviness as a marketing tactic. In March of 2012, a blog post highlighted “Rides of Glory,” or late night weekend trips that were followed by with return trips a short time later. “I’m not pointing any fingers here or anything,” wrote Bradley Voytek, then a data scientist at Uber. But, he wrote, the data revealed that some riders “on occasion found love that you might immediately regret upon waking up the morning after.”

The company has advertised jobs that suggest at least some employees have access to user data at the individual level. A job posting for a Marketing Analytics Manager in DC counted mining data and analytics “at the rider level” to better understand usage behaviors among the job duties.

"Location data especially is in the zone of tension between consumers who feel that it’s just one more area where data is being collected on them and they're not sure how its being used,” says Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. ”But at the same time they like the services afforded by these features,” like Uber’s detailed maps showing where the next car might be available.

Whether Uber has kept tight enough tabs on user data, especially on the rider level, is an on-going worry for some users. And there have been hints that the company has not guarded users’ privacy as closely as riders may have liked.

Earlier this year, entrepreneur and writer Peter Sims alleged that the company displayed his real time location in an Uber vehicle to the crowd at a 2011 launch party for the service in Chicago -- writing in a Medium post that he received a text from an attendee detailing his location down to the cross streets, though some other attendees at the party did not recall that aspect of the evening.

The minutiae of people's’ online activities are being collected by many companies they use everyday, like Google and Facebook. And consumers increasingly appear concerned about the vast amount of information private companies know about them.

A recent survey from the Pew Research Center showed that 91% of adults believe that consumers have “lost control” over how personal information is collected and used by private companies.

But the move to mobile is connecting the dots between our online and real world locations and activities.

In the early days of the Internet, location didn't really factor in to the online equation said Pew’s Rainie -- people "felt placeless online." Now times have changed.

“With mobile, location is at the center of the story -- there's a brand new layer that is baked into every kind of digital engagement and people are just beginning to understand what that means," Rainie says.

"There's a data gold rush frenzy to harness people's location -- it's almost a last hurdle,” added the Center for Digital Democracy’s Jeffrey Chester.

Geolocation data can be used to paint incredibly intimate portraits of where people work, where they live, who they socialize with, and even which medical conditions they may have. For instance, if a person is making routine visits to specific clinics, observers could infer that the user is struggling with a drug addiction or battling a disease like AIDS, says Horwitz.

This level of intimacy is one of the reasons geolocation data can be an incredibly valuable commodity, especially combined with other data gleaned about users online activities. “They've merged online and offline -- they want to continue their tracking into your real world experience," Chester says.

"This is so deeply tied to the trust issue,” Rainie said of the claims that a Buzzfeed reporter’s data was accessed by an employee without her permission. “Consumers know there are these organizations that are collecting data and they're just not sure that what the companies say is going to be true is actually the final word."

Consumers are aware rogue employees or just people who have access to data don't necessarily follow all the right protocols, he says.

But Chester thinks consumers are increasingly not able to choose if they want to be wrapped up on the data collection at the heart of many emerging tech industries. “It's not a matter of trust, the public has no choice because companies like Google and Uber and others have created a big data business model that collects 24/7 everything we and our friends do,” says Chester. “It's a massive data collection system where our information is and sold to the highest bidder.”

In August, Uber hired Obama advisor David Plouffe to run an “Uber the candidate” campaign to win the company’s political battles around the country. Now Plouffe has to contend with a growing public impression that the company is willing to engage in Nixonian dirty tricks.

Emily Badger contributed reporting.