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Uber's Traffic Jammed In Netherlands, India And Spain

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for some number crunching from our data expert Mona Chalabi from fivethirtyeight.com. She has given us this number of the week.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: 52.

MARTIN: That is the number of countries that the ride-share service Uber says it works in since the company launched in 2010. Mona Chalabi joins us from our studios in New York. Hi, Mona.

MONA CHALABI: Hello, Rachel.

MARTIN: So Huber has had a lot of high-profile fights. A lot of cities, even foreign countries, have argued that what it does, this ride-sharing service, stifles competition. But I understand just this past week was a particularly rough one for the company?

CHALABI: Yeah. Judges in the Netherlands and Spain have banned the service, as well as two Indian cities, Delhi and Hyderabad. Here in the states, district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles filed consumer protection suits against Uber. And the city of Portland, Oregon has filed a lawsuit to shut down the taxi service. And all of that happened just between Monday and Wednesday.

MARTIN: So what does all this mean for the company's global ambitions? Are they scaling back as they meet all this resistance?

CHALABI: Well, it's a bit hard to say because the company's expansion seems to be happening as fast as its backlash. According to Forbes, Uber is launching around 30 cities in the last 30 days. A couple of weeks ago it was Hanoi in Vietnam. On Monday it was set up in Sofia, and on Tuesday it launched in the Chinese city of Tianjin.

MARTIN: So along with all this expansion, I understand that Uber is really aggressive when it comes to trying to track its data to figure out who uses its service and under what circumstances. And that has, in turn, raised some privacy concerns.

CHALABI: Yeah. There's been a couple of scandals to be honest. Last month one of Uber's top executives in New York tracked the trips of a Buzzfeed journalist without her permission. Afterwards, two former Uber employees spoke out and described an internal company tool called God View.

MARTIN: God View, what does that mean?

CHALABI: It sounds weird, right?

MARTIN: Yeah.

CHALABI: It shows the location of Uber vehicles and customers who have requested a car. So basically it allows the company to accurately track all users. Then earlier this month, a Washington Post reporter described someone who had a job interview with Uber in 2013. Apparently the applicant was given access to Uber's database. In fact, they even had access several hours after the interview had ended.

MARTIN: OK. So that raises some red flags about privacy. But is all of this bad? I mean, is there any silver lining, any good use of this kind of data?

CHALABI: Yeah. So if Uber were to share some of its anonymized data about the trips that are made by its passengers, people like transport planners would be able to gather much more information about the way that the residents of a cite navigate it. At the moment, that's incredibly difficult and expensive to do which ultimately affects traffic and infrastructure in a city.

MARTIN: But how likely is Uber to share that information with city planners? I mean, they must want to do so at a price, right? I mean, this is a corporation.

CHALABI: That's true, but there's also a slight public information aspect here because at the moment most cities demand that taxis share that data to demonstrate that they're not discriminating against certain neighborhoods.

MARTIN: Alright so let's say that I'm an Uber user, and I don't like the sounds of this data tracking program. Is there a way to opt out?

CHALABI: Well, you can delete the Uber app from your phone, but that actually won't delete your user account. So to do that, you need to write to Uber. But here's the thing - reading Uber's U.S. privacy policy, it says, quote, even after your account is terminated, we will retain your personal information and usage information including geo-location, trip history, credit card information and transaction history as needed, unquote.

MARTIN: A lesson in reading the small print, for sure.

CHALABI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Mona Chalabi of fivethirtyeight.com. Thanks so much for talking with us.

CHALABI: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.