Taxi! A New Investigation Is Underway...
Alternative War was exhausting. An investigation over months, during which I exposed the horrifying scale of Russia's invasion of democratic processes in Britain and America. An undeclared world conflict years in the making. Recovery from the information-dense work was, however, short lived. Even as the book was being prepared for release, a month after being written, I found myself following a lead which previously looked like nothing more than a dull loose end: Uber.
On the 12th of February 2016: LetterOne (L1), the international investment business, confirmed it had made a strategic investment of two hundred million dollars in taxi company Uber. L1's press team wrote: "Uber has a world-class technology platform that effortlessly connects people with an affordable ride at a press of a button. L1 contributes unparalleled local understanding and consumer knowledge in many emerging markets around the world." As long-term investors, and self-proclaimed "successful entrepreneurs", L1 invests in what it refers to as "world-class businesses and management teams."
Mikhail Fridman, Chairman of L1, said: "I'm excited by our strategic partnership with Uber. As entrepreneurs, with experience in retail, banking, telecoms and energy sectors, and knowledge of diverse developed and emerging markets, we believe that Uber's highly talented management team possesses the necessary vision and skills to build the company into one of the world's preeminent technology businesses."
Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, greeted the announcement by saying: “Every day millions of people rely on Uber to get from A to B. Hundreds of thousands of drivers use our app to make money. Our goal is simple: reliable and affordable transportation everywhere, for everyone, at the push of a button. L1’s knowledge of emerging markets will be crucial in helping us make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more opportunities for drivers”.
L1, which is based in Luxembourg and has offices in London, was seeking to invest between two and three billion dollars in: "Late-stage technology growth opportunities globally over the next couple of years. L1 added that it: "Targets technology investments between US$100 and 500 million, and looks for new strategic partnerships."
Alexey Reznikovich, L1 Technology's Managing Partner, said: "We have access to considerable funds, and are looking at opportunities of a certain size and certain stage. Digitalisation is creating opportunities globally for new digital businesses to provide innovative forms of customer orientated services, and for existing businesses, and for many sectors, to reinvent themselves. We aim to invest in young but proven businesses. Our focus is on investing in exciting and innovative technologies. We don't want to focus on any specific sector - but on technologies - because they can jump from one sector to another. We take a long term view and have permanent capital."
L1’s net asset value on the 31st of December 2014 amounted to approximately twenty-five billion dollars.
None of this may sound important or surprising. But it is. This was my loose end.
L1 is part of Alfa Bank, also run by Fridman, along with others closely connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Alfa Bank's servers were communicating with servers connected to both Betsy Devos' Spectrum Health, and President Trump's business empire. The server connection, experts believe, was a data transfer and I agree. L1 had also invested money in health care related functions in the US, and Trump's main push was for the repeal of Obamacare. Then there was the big data issue, another key theme I'd uncovered having tracked the activities of Cambridge Analytica and how they were deployed to support both the Brexit and Trump campaigns. Campaigns that worked together with Russia, serving Putin's purpose of destabilising the US and the European Union.
Back in 2015, the Washington Post and others raised growing concerns Uber employees - and potentially even interviewees - were being afforded access to customer data. Unfettered access. Articles set out how Uber employees could use a system feature known as God View to track all Uber customers in real time. According to these reports, the information was even shown as entertainment at company events. It was also alleged Uber senior executives had viewed travel records of reporters writing critical articles about the company. Uber's Senior Vice President, Emil Michael, went as far as going on record to say he would spend one million dollars to find details of their personal lives and families. Another allegation claimed Uber officials analysed journey data to predict the overnight sexual activities of customers, which the company named "Rides of Glory."
The data collected by Uber includes names, credit card information, location data, and regularly travelled routes, such as journeys to home and places of work. Reporting on the issues for Wired, journalist Thomas Leuthard wrote: "No organization should give all employees unfettered access to such a vast treasure trove of customer or employee data unless it is pertinent to their role. The fact that Uber gave not just employees, but also interviewees, unlimited access to customer data is shocking, and their reported misuse of travel details for personal agendas has opened the company up to scrutiny by regulatory agencies around their privacy practices."
Leuthard concluded by writing: "The potential for abuse is vast with this kind of information. Not only could Uber employees credibly conduct attacks like the one suggested against reporter Sarah Lacy, but it also invites the possibility of both cyber and physical stalking, abuse of credit card data, and corporate and government espionage based on the physical movements of riders. Not to mention the basic fact that the more people who have access to this data, the more likely it is to be leaked publicly or misused in another manner."
Having plumbed the depths of data laundering in my last investigation, an activity which implicated both the Trump and Brexit campaigns and the Conservative Party during the 20-17 general election, Leuthard's conclusion resonated heavily with me. However, I had no idea about Lacy's story or how it would tie in to what subsequently fell into my lap.
Lacy, a former TechCrunch writer, set up Pando on the 16th of January 2012. The name was inspired by a tree colony in Utah, with a massive root system which covers over a hundred acres and is continually sprouting fresh growth, even after wildfires. On starting the technology focused venture Lacy wrote: "It’s the perfect metaphor for what I love about Silicon Valley. It’s not just individual hot startups of-the-moment; it’s that unique startup ecosystem that continually shoots up new companies no matter how frothy or scorched everything above ground gets."
On the 22nd of October 2014, Lacy published an article in which she sharply criticised the "asshole culture" of Uber and said she intended to delete the app from her phone. It was a month after this BuzzFeed's editor-in-chief Ben Smith reported that Uber senior executive Emil Michael: "outlined the notion of spending a million dollars" to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. He said the team could help Uber fight back against the press by looking into "personal lives, your families". Michael's comment was allegedly focused on Lacy in response to accusation Uber was guilty of “sexism and misogyny". Lacy wrote a highly critical response and the surrounding controversy was picked up by CNBC, Business Insider, and the New York Times.
Opening her article, Lacy pulled no punch, writing: "A big debate among the Pando staff for the past two years has been over just how morally bankrupt Uber is. Earlier this evening, a bombshell story by Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith proves the reality is way worse than anyone on our team could have expected. And that’s saying something." She went on to recap a number of stories written about Uber, starting back in 2012, when journalist Paul Carr first wrote about concerns the company held a view its passengers and drivers were: "Disposable commodities in an all-out Randian battle to maximize profits." She also briefly referred to the 2014 Carmel DeAmici's exposé, which uncovered the lack of criminal records checks on an Uber driver subsequently accused of assault. Uber had claimed to be performing background searches, though the story cast doubt on this. DeAmici labelled the company as having a “blame the passenger” culture when it came to such complaints. Lacy also referred back to a significant investigation by The Verge, in which they uncovered a somewhat unscrupulous attack on rival company Lyft.
According to journalists at The Verge, Uber was: "Arming teams of independent contractors with burner phones and credit cards as part of its sophisticated effort to undermine Lyft and other competitors," adding: "Interviews with current and former contractors, along with internal documents obtained by The Verge, outline the company’s evolving methods." Through a network of contractors, referred to as "brand ambassadors," Uber was lodging requests for rides from Lyft and other competitors, recruiting their drivers, and deploying: "Multiple precautions to avoid detection." The campaign was spreading across the whole of the US and resulted in thousands of canceled Lyft rides which made it difficult for the Uber rival to gain traction in its developing marketplace. According to The Verge, Uber called the campaign "SLOG," and put together a dossier of interviews and documents which showed: "The lengths to which Uber will go to halt its rivals’ momentum." Among the pages of evidence were emails from Uber managers, though the company subsequently responded by saying: "We never use marketing tactics that prevent a driver from making their living — and that includes never intentionally cancelling rides."
Prior to the verge publication, CNN reported Uber employees around the country had ordered and cancelled 5,560 Lyft rides, according to an analysis by Lyft - a figure produced by cross-referencing phone numbers of users who tried to recruit Lyft drivers to Uber with passengers who had cancelled rides. Uber denied sabotage, telling CNN: "Lyft’s claims against Uber are baseless and simply untrue," but The Verge followed up with one contractor who told them: "What’s simply untrue is that not only does Uber know about this, they’re actively encouraging these actions day-to-day and, in doing so, are flat-out lying both to their customers, the media, and their investors."
Some of those used by Uber were hired through TargetCW, a San Diego-based employment agency. For the most part, these product ambassadors worked events and college campuses, promoting Uber as a cheap and easy way of getting around with the primary goal of recruiting riders, not drivers - An activity Uber referred to as: "Slanging." However, something changed in the midsummer of 2014 and some of the ambassadors in New York began to focus their attention on Lyft. Using Uber-provided iPhones and credit cards, they would hail rides, strike up conversations with Lyft drivers, and attempt to sign them up before they arrived at their destinations. The Verge claimed: "In other cities recruiters travel with "driver kits" that include iPhones and everything else a driver needs to get started on Uber; ambassadors were told New York State does not allow this.) Compensation varies, but contractors can earn a $750 commission for successfully recruiting a single new driver to Uber, according to a contractor."
Lyft became wise to the strategy and began to ban known ambassadors banning from using the service but this prompted Uber to change tack. In the build up to Lyft's New York launch in July 2014, Uber put together what they dubbed a "Street Team" to analyse Lyft’s operation. On the 9th of July, one marketing manager emailed a group of ambassadors in New York, writing: "We have a special ongoing project that we’re going to be rolling out next week and I wanted to get about 8–10 of you to help out...This is going to be completely based on your own personal hustle, as it’s not a typical onsite event. We are going to have you working on your own time helping us sign up Uber drivers, and there is HUGE commission opportunity for everyone you signup."
This was "SLOG" and those who responded were invited to private meetings with Uber marketing managers from Los Angeles and Washington, DC. During the hour-long briefings, the company set out its detailed plans and the ambassadors were given two Uber-branded iPhones and a series of valid credit card numbers to be used for creating dummy Lyft accounts. The second phone, according to a contractor interviewed by The Verge, was issued so they would have a backup number in case Lyft caught them out with the first. A follow-up email outlined the process for recruiting Lyft drivers in detail, highlighting the importance of requesting rides from different locations to avoid detection and suggested methods of recruiting drivers. The message linked to an online form with which Uber could collect information about the Lyft drivers.
Also realising the plan might mean Lyft drivers were open to recruitment multiple times - which could alert Lyft about the street team’s existence - a private group on the messaging service GroupMe was set up for ambassadors to share their driver details. One Uber marketing manager detailed this in an email, saying: "You guys will run into drivers you have already got in cars with. Post the driver profiles in Groupme when you request so people are aware."
One email obtained by The Verge linked to an online form for requesting burner phones, credit cards, and driver kits which listed ten other cities as "SLOG" targets, including LA, Seattle, Boston, Miami, and Washington, DC. The form included the statement: "We are growing and growing so with that said this will put some organization to your madness."
After Uber became aware of The Verge story, Target CW sent out repeated emails warning its contractors that talking to the press violated a non-disclosure agreement signed when they joined.
But Uber's controversy didn't end with active poaching. CEO Travis Kalanick is recorded as making comments that he calls the company “Boober” because of: "All the tail he gets since running it."
According to Lacy, "outrageous sexism" is " woven deeply into the culture of the company". In her own article, she wrote: "We’ve seen it in the company’s PR team discrediting female passengers who accuse drivers of attacking them by whispering that they were drunk or dressed provocatively."
"And on October 22, we saw it again with an offensive campaign in Lyon that encouraged riders to get picked up by hot female drivers, essentially a scary invitation to objectify (or worse) any woman working for the company. That ad was taken down once exposed by Buzzfeed, but sources tell us no one was fired for taking that kind of “initiative.” We also heard that Kalanick’s misogyny is such a problem that recently hired political operative David Plouffe had made it a priority to work on the CEO’s behaviour. As if that kind of misogyny-- and encouragement of it in a corporate culture-- is something that careful media training can repair rather than simply disguise," she added.
Starting to process all of this information, a recent case from the UK came to mind. An Uber driver who waited outside London bars and targeted drunk women to rape them was jailed for twelve years in July 2017.
Jahir Hussain, a London-based Uber driver had deliberately targeted women as they left bars and pubs in the Shoreditch area in the east of the city. During the hearing at Snaresbrook Crown Court, the jury heard his first victim woke up to find the father-of-four fondling her breasts and undoing his belt. Stunned, she lay still in the back of his cab as he raped her. The court heard that he lifted up the dress of another victim while she was asleep and she noticed her tights and underwear had been cut in an identical way to his previous victims.
Hussain, from Poplar, east London admitted to two counts of sexual assault, two counts of rape, a serious sexual assault and battery with intent to commit a sexual offence. According to the Independent: "He sat emotionless as the verdict was read out and the judge mentioned that a life sentence was considered."
Detective Constable Samantha Dart of the Metropolitan Police Service said on the verdict: "Hussain is a predator who exploited his employment as a mini-cab driver to seriously sexually assault vulnerable females...Women should be able to go out and enjoy themselves without fear of assault. We are grateful to all three women for having the courage to report these matters to police, and for their continued support throughout the investigations."
Though the case attracted broad attention, Hussain was not, in fact, accepting booking through the Uber app and not logged when the incidents took place. A spokesman for Uber said: "We were appalled to hear about these horrific crimes and our thoughts are with the victims. While these attacks did not take place on a trip booked through our app, we were still able to support the police in bringing this man to justice."
The more I began to examine Uber, however, the clearer it became something larger was awry. A month before the verdict in the Hussain case, an Indian woman who was raped by an Uber driver sued the company. She alleged in her law suit Uber executives had “violated her a second time” by obtaining her medical records, which she claimed they used to cast doubt on her credibility as a victim.
The woman, who lived in Texas and brought the case under a Jane Doe alias to protect her identity, named Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and former executives Eric Alexander and Emil Michael in papers citing a violation of privacy and defamation of character. According to reports in the Guardian: "The case stems from a 2014 rape that caused widespread outrage against Uber in India and led to the service being temporarily banned in Delhi. The victim was an Uber passenger who was assaulted by her driver. The driver, Shiv Kumar Yadav, was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison." This was the case in which Uber was subjected to heavy criticism over its failure to perform effective background checks on the criminal records of its drivers. The driver was already facing charges in four other criminal cases at the time of the rape.
By that time worth around seventy billion dollars, Uber had initially expressed support for the victim - Kalanick released a statement saying: “We will do everything, I repeat, everything to help bring this perpetrator to justice and to support the victim and her family in her recovery.” The week before the Doe case was filed, however, Uber changed its view of the assault internally and Alexander, president of business for Uber Asia Pacific at the time, made the trip to India to obtain the Jane Doe's medical records. It was alleged he subsequently shared her records with Kalanick and Michael, the senior vice-president for business, and the group decided the victim was, in fact, part of a conspiracy by rival company Ola to damage Uber’s reputation. In the wake of the "SLOG" investigation by The Verge, the morality of the organisation was already in question.
Douglas Wigdor, Jane Doe’s attorney, said in a statement: “It is shocking that Travis Kalanick could publicly say that Uber would do everything to support our client and her family in her recovery when he and other executives were reviewing illegally obtained medical records and engaging in offensive and spurious conspiracy theories about the brutal rape she so tragically suffered,”
Alexander, it transpired, was dismissed by Uber on the 6th of June 2017, after reporters working for Recode began investigating the circumstances around the incident. The New York Times also alleged an Uber spokesman had lied to a reporter in April when he made inquiries about the same issue. Michael left Uber of his own accord on the week the Doe case was filed and Kalanick was placed on indefinite garden-leave the day after. The pressure from the board of directors came from the details of the suit which alleged Alexander: “Met with Delhi police and intentionally obtained plaintiff’s confidential medical records” in the days after the assault. The suit also alleged Uber still maintained possession of the records - Alexander’s copy of the documents was handed over to the company in or around December 2015. Exactly how Alexander obtained the medical records in the first place is still unknown, but allegations of corruption in Indian policing are widespread and have been for many years. Madhur Verma, a senior Delhi police official who was in charge of investigating the December 2014 sexual assault, told the Guardian that there was "no reason for it." When the original rape case was tried, Alexander testified for the prosecution in the case, about the driver’s route and background but Verma was adamant that even if Uber applied for permission to access the records, police would never have given it.
Jane Doe successfully sued Uber for fraud and negligence in 2015 over their failures and the case was reportedly settled for at least three million dollars. Responding to this, Uber made a statement that: "No one should have to go through a horrific experience like this, and we’re truly sorry that she’s had to relive it over the last few weeks."
Doe's second lawsuit came at a time Uber had been engulfed in a six month period of scandal. In the same week as the case was filed, and also impacting on the decisions as regards the senior management team, the company released the results of an investigation into allegations of widespread sexual assault and gender discrimination. The board unanimously adopted the report’s recommendations, which included reducing Kalanick’s role and implementing basic business practices like a functioning human resources department. The report’s recommendations exposed an incredibly rudimental grasp of issues and an inadequate structure, especially when considering the high valuation of the globally viral company. The report highlighted: "Calls for training human resource personnel on the effective handling of complaints, training senior management and executives in leadership, and the introduction of a policy banning romantic relationships between employees and their managers." Uber themselves commissioned the internal investigation after the publication of a blog post by a former engineer, Susan Fowler, who described her experience of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the company. The report also called on Uber to: "Significantly improve its diversity efforts, starting with elevating the head of diversity to the most senior level of the company’s executive team." In addition, Uber was: "Encouraged to establish an employee diversity advisory board, use a blind résumé review process for evaluating job applicants, and adopt a “Rooney Rule” requiring at least one female and one underrepresented minority candidate be identified for key positions."
With an acceptance of the necessity to place him on garden leave, a review and reallocation of Kalanick’s duties was followed with recommendations to hire a chief operating officer (COO) to: "Function as a “full partner” with the CEO, adding more independent seats to the board of directors, and establishing an oversight committee." The report also called on Uber to: "Reformulate the company’s notorious cultural values, eliminating those values which have been identified as redundant or as having been used to justify poor behaviour, including Let Builders Build, Always Be Hustlin’, Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping, and Principled Confrontation."
The company’s human resources chief, Liane Hornsey, said in a statement: "Implementing these recommendations will improve our culture, promote fairness and accountability, and establish processes and systems to ensure the mistakes of the past will not be repeated."
One of Uber’s earliest investors Freada Kapor Klein commended the recommendations, but was doubtful Kalanick would return to the company: "Somebody needs to run a world-class business, reboot the culture and take diversity and inclusion seriously," she said, adding: "I can imagine that team with Travis coming back, and I can imagine that team without Travis."
Even in the face of evidence, Uber's culture stole the show. During a meeting presenting the report to employees on Tuesday, venture capitalist and board member David Bonderman interrupted his colleague Arianna Huffington with a sexist remark, captured on an audio recording of the meeting. Discussing the addition of a second female board member, Huffington commented data showed that once a company had one woman on its board, it was more likely to have others. Bonderman interrupted her, saying: “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.” After emailing staff to apologise, he resigned.
The company started the year paying a $20m settlement to the Federal Trade Commission to settle charges that it misled drivers over their potential earnings, and things have only gone downhill from there.
Fowler’s blog post, it seems, opened the floodgates to dozens of reports exposing a deeply disturbing workplace - including revelations of a trip by executives to a South Korean escort bar, a “sex memo”, and the alleged mishandling of Jane Doe's medical records. The company was also linked to Trump's toxic White House at the end of January 2017, thanks to Kalanick holding a position on a Trump economic advisory council and the company’s refusal to participate in a New York taxi strike protesting the first incarnation of Trump’s controversial travel ban. While Kalanick stepped away from the advisory role and the company claimed it hadn't meant to violate the picket, according to the New York Times about half a million passengers followed through on a social media campaign calling for people to #DeleteUber. The week before the report's release no less than twenty Uber staff members were dismissed over a number of incidents including harassment, retaliation, discrimination and bullying. Dozens more were disciplined and almost sixty complaints were under investigation. Uber’s self-driving car program also remains under threat due to an intellectual property lawsuit by Google's spinoff Waymo. Uber has, as yet, not managed to drive the case into mediation and it has already resulted in a job loss by the head of Uber’s program, Anthony Levandowski. According to an analysis by the Guardian, the case could: "Fatally wound the company’s autonomous vehicle ambitions when it lands in front of a jury in October." As it revolved around the theft of intellectual property, the case has since been referred to federal prosecutors and the company is also mired in a federal investigation into its use of a program called Greyball, uncovered by the New York Times in March 2017. The program allowed Uber to systematically evade law enforcement detection and monitoring in cities where its service was illegal.
Uber present a breathtakingly grim picture, connected by financing to a covert conflict and, as I signed off the final proof of Alternative War, it became clear the taxi trail led all the way to Downing Street.
I'm a sucker for a good story, exhausted or not...