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Uber survived the spying scandal, but they still fear for their career

The story Jacobs told, and the years it took to unravel, were entwined with Uber's terrible reputation.

Uber | US companies

Kate Conger | NYT 

The secrecy of Uber’s intelligence team ended abruptly in 2017 when one of its members turned on the others, accusing them of stealing trade secrets, wiretapping and destroying evidence

The men who gathered intelligence for were supposed to be ghosts. For years, they were un-Googleable sentries, quietly informing executives about the actions of competitors, opponents and disgruntled employees. But the secrecy of the tight-knit team ended abruptly in 2017 when one of its members turned on the others, accusing them of stealing trade secrets, wiretapping and destroying evidence.

They flouted the law while carrying out Uber’s dirtiest missions, their former co-worker, Richard Jacobs, claimed in an April 2017 email sent to top executives. His lawyer followed up with a letter that said the team went so far as to hack foreign governments and wiretap Uber’s own employees.

But Jacobs’s most damning allegations of illegal activity were not true. In June, nearly four years after his claims drew wide attention, he retracted them. In a letter to his former co-workers that he wrote as part of a legal settlement, Jacobs explained that he had never intended to suggest that they broke the law.

“I am sorry,” he wrote. “I regret not having clarified the statements at an earlier time and regret any distress or injury my statements may have caused.” Gary Bostwick, a lawyer for Jacobs, declined to comment.

The story Jacobs told, and the years it took to unravel, were entwined with Uber’s terrible reputation. In the months before his story emerged, the ride-hailing company had been accused of permitting rampant workplace harassment, mishandling medical records and concealing data breaches.

It seemed to make sense to people that was also spying and stealing. The company thrived and fell in an economy fuelled by perception. After its year of relentless scandals, Uber hired a new chief executive with a do-gooder persona, cleaned house and began publicly reporting data about sexual assaults on its rides, a signal that the company would no longer cover up misconduct. Although Uber has yet to turn a profit, it has trimmed losses in recent years and reported $4.8 billion in revenue in the most recent quarter.

In the end, Uber’s troubled reputation stuck more firmly to its employees than to the company itself.

Jacobs’s former teammates said they still faced uncomfortable questions from friends, family and potential employers about their past. While Uber regained trust, they didn’t. The men constantly worried about the next time someone — a new co-worker, their children — Googled them.

On a sunny spring Friday in 2016, Nick Gicinto walked out of a secure Central Intelligence Agency facility in suburban Virginia for the last time.

The next Monday, he arrived at Uber’s offices in Washington, DC. There were no security guards, no metal detectors. Gicinto could walk straight onto the elevator and into the office, a sprawling space with fishbowl conference rooms and a seemingly endless array of free snacks.

“It was over to your desk and off to the races,” Gicinto recalled, a stark contrast to the rigid environment he had left at the CIA. That year, Uber was expanding aggressively into foreign markets. The pushback was swift and sometimes violent. Taxi drivers staged widespread protests, and in Nairobi, Kenya, several Uber cars were lit on fire and drivers were beaten. Competitors in China and India used sophisticated methods to collect Uber’s data and undercut its prices.

To fight back, Uber began to recruit a team of former CIA officers like Gicinto, law enforcement officials and cybersecurity experts. The team would gather intelligence about threats against Uber drivers and executives, and investigate competing and potential acquisitions.

“They didn’t know what was going on, on the ground,” Gicinto said. “They recognised that they needed somebody who understood the human aspect of these things and understood foreign environments.”

©2021 The New York Times News Service

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First Published: Mon, November 29 2021. 00:59 IST