Opinion

Uber's convenience isn't worth the risk

WASHINGTON – I feel safe in writing this because I am not an Uber customer nor do I ever intend to be. An old-fashioned taxi with a driver who has been vetted and is subject to disciplinary action by a licensing agency is still the way I intend to travel around town when not driving myself.

If you are addicted to the convenience allowed by the new technology that has us firmly in its grip and aren’t concerned about the fact that it comes with a price that allows your private movements to be tracked with ease, then you may feel differently. But that seems to me to be a pretty high cost.

As a practicing journalist for more years than I care to reveal, I, like most of my colleagues, have had my share of threats from those who don’t believe in the First Amendment, at least its protection of the press. One quickly learns that such attacks are just part of what must be paid to do the job. Most reporters learn to shrug off unfair criticism or acknowledge a mistake.

But a suggestion by Uber’s senior vice president for Business, Emil Michael, that it should hire a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on the personal lives of journalists who find fault with his company goes well beyond the acceptable and needs to be considered for what it is – an attempt at gross intimidation. What makes it that is the upstart (sorry start up) company’s ability to carry out the threat given the technology on which its success is based.

Just push the app on your phone or notebook for a ride and Bib Brother is just around the corner ready to look into the most intimate details of your life to only one end – to blackmail you into silence if need be.

Since Michael made his horrific statement heard at a meeting of movers and shakers including the Huffington Post, the young company’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, has apologized in a series of Tweets on Twitter. What he said in 14 of these was that his fellow executive showed “a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values …” He added that the company is dedicated to a trustworthiness for its riders and so forth and that Michael is not in the communications end of the business. No kidding.

Good for him, but there are some of us out here who are not devotees of Twitter because so much of what is tweeted is inane nonsense – full of misinformation and half witted opinions. Their commentaries often fall under the “who cares” or “why should I waste my time reading this” categories. So we missed what he said. It certainly doesn’t seem to me to be a way of conveying a serious apology.

Perhaps a conventional statement of regret would be better.

Actually, someone suggested a news conference. But that might not be a good idea given the nature of Michael’s threat. Kalanick took a little too much time to address the matter. That fact in itself suggests that there might be more to this than hip shooting by a mouthy underling .

Uber’s rapid rise reminds me of how a track coach once told me to run the quarter mile. “It is best to start off as fast as you can go and steadily increase your speed,” he advised in all seriousness. That is exactly what the company has done and with aggressive determination. Nothing wrong with that if someone has a firm grip on the controls and an understanding of what could take place if they let go.

If I had been on the verge of considering whether to use this convenience, which comes at not a small price as I understand it, I no longer would be. A friend who does so and does not drive herself informed me a while back that it was so easy to use and efficient. I’m not certain how she feels now.

I would think that perhaps those of us who are so conscious of the prying into our lives that we tear off the mailing addresses on our magazines and catalogs to keep our identities intact would be much more cautious now about giving the Uber’s of the world access to our affairs just for a ride.

Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: thomassondan@aol.com.

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