Silicon Valley Needs Counseling for Its God Complex

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2014-11-28 Print this article Print
Valley God Complex

NEWS ANALYSIS: Silicon Valley Internet companies are all too willing to monitor, manipulate and experiment with their customers, displaying God-like indifference to their human rights and privacy.

You heard about the most recent Uber scandal, right?

The San Francisco-based ride sharing service has been plagued by accusations of anti-competitiveness, user privacy violations, driver exploitation, sexism and more.

The most recent controversy started when Buzzfeed reported that Uber senior vice president Emil Michael was quoted as saying at a Silicon Valley dinner that Uber should hire researchers to investigate journalists in general, and to specifically expose something he claims to know about Pando Daily founder and journalist Sarah Lacy, who had been critical of Uber.

His message to journalists was that they could expose "your personal lives, your families" and do to journalists what he believes journalists do to people in the industry.

Michael later said he regretted his comments and that they don't represent his or the company's views. He was probably joking or venting and believed the comments to be off the record.

But then it got interesting. In conveying Michael's regrets, an Uber spokesperson relayed that it's against Uber's company policies to look at journalists' travel logs, saying that "access to and use of data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes."

That last comment brought the public's attention to an article written by Forbes' Kashmir Hill a month earlier. In that piece, Hill exposed Uber CEO Travis Kalanick entertaining tech people at a party with something Uber calls "God View"—a view of all the Uber cars and waiting riders in any city. One attendee says she had seen at one party in 2011 the names of all the customers in God View—she recognized some of them and even texted entrepreneur Peter Sims, telling him she knew where he was. Sims reportedly freaked out and quit using Uber.

It also raised questions about the nugget of personal information about Sara Lacy that Michael's claims to know. Did he learn it by tracking her on Uber's God View?

I'll leave accusations of privacy violations and speculation about what else "God View" is being used for to others. In this column, I want to look at the mindset of successful Silicon Valley people.

Do they have a God Complex?

Since the launch of the app Whisper, hardly anyone thought much about what the startup was doing with information it knew about the location of users. Whisper is an app that lets you send messages to your friends anonymously. They know it came from someone they know, but they don't know who.

A controversial story in The Guardian claimed that Whisper actually tracks users and acts upon that information in ways that should alarm users. The paper also said Whisper developed an in-house mapping tool that enables staff to pinpoint messages to within 500 meters of their send point, and also track an individual's location over time. Call it "God mode." Why not?

The publication further revealed that messages are never deleted, and in fact are sometimes shared with the Pentagon, the FBI and MI5.

Whisper, in fact, has a news organization that monitors newsworthy users, tracking their movement and activity on the app. They've publicized news based on monitoring Whisper users about Gwyneth Paltrow and American Apparel founder Dov Charney. They tracked Israeli soldiers in the Gaza war because they could easily identify them due to their location plus their comments.

Whisper defended itself in this Medium post.

There's some disagreement between The Guardian and Whisper about what Whisper actually does, and total disagreement about the ethics of what Whisper does.

But it's clear that Whisper has had an Uber-like God complex for some time, watching users, divining their activities, intervening in life-and-death situations (like war, crime and suicide) and that all the while, users thought their locations were secret, their messages deleted and their behavior invisible.

Facebook has always had a God Complex.

At an unusual town hall style Q&A session, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that only about 10 percent of your posts on average are delivered to your family and friends. Likewise, you see only about 10 percent of what they post.


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