Uber, the ride-sharing Silicon Valley unicorn, is… still in the news. They say that all publicity is good publicity – even the bad ones – but Uber is really taking that saying to its limits, it seems.
This week, it was revealed that the company had been hiding a massive data breach that occurred over a year ago. The breach involved personal information including names, email addresses, and phone numbers of 57 million customers worldwide. In addition, driver’s names and their license numbers were illegally accessed as well (7 million in total; 600,000 drivers in the US alone). According to bloomberg.com,
Here’s how the hack went down: Two attackers accessed a private GitHub coding site used by Uber software engineers and then used login credentials they obtained there to access data stored on an Amazon Web Services account that handled computing tasks for the company. From there, the hackers discovered an archive of rider and driver information. Later, they emailed Uber asking for money, according to the company.
Unsurprisingly, many states – including Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Connecticut, and Washington – have announced an investigation into the matter. Data security regulators in other countries have done the same.
A Checkered Past
It was just this past August that Uber agreed to a settlement with the FTC, closing a probe into how Uber misled customers regarding its privacy practices: the company allowed employees to access riders’ personal information, including the details of trips, via a tool called “God View.” The problem was described by some as a “lapse” in the ride-hailing company’s security practices.
In addition, the company had to deal with a data breach (smaller than the one being discussed here). The FTC looked into the issue and concluded, per recode.net:
For years, Uber stressed it had taken great steps to protect its driver and rider data — all stored using Amazon’s cloud service. Until 2015, however, some of that information was saved as “clear, readable text, including in database back-ups and database prune files, rather than encrypting the information,” the FTC said.
(However, as recode.net points out, the settlement hasn’t been finalized. The FTC must vote on it, and some lawmakers had urged the FTC to increase the penalties, perhaps even open a new investigation based on what the probe had revealed. This was before the latest revelation).
Hackers Bad. Lawyers Even Worse?
When Bloomberg broke the news about Uber’s latest transgression, two people were fired, including Uber’s Chief Security Officer, Joe Sullivan. When approached by the hackers, Sullivan and Craig Clark, a lawyer with the company, made the decision to pay the attackers $100,000 to delete the data and to stay quiet about the incident.
While none of that is illegal – paying off the hackers, asking them to be quiet, the hackers actually keeping quiet, and the hackers deleting the data they had acquired – what Uber did afterwards is.
The US has 48 separate data breach notifications laws. Most of them are similar. For example, most have a specific definition of what “private data” is and is not, and generally require a notification to be sent within 60 calendar days of discovering the breach. Also, they provide safe harbor from notifying clients after a data breach if the data was encrypted.
Unfortunately, not all states offer the same protection, meaning that if your business is big enough, you’re going to have to come clean anyhow: while people may be willing to believe that a Brooklyn-located mom-and-pop store’s data breach affected New York residents only, it’d be very unusual that only New York residents were affected by a Uber hack. So, it makes no sense to announce a data breach in New York only (assuming New York does not provide encryption safe harbor) because people excel at adding two and two together.
In addition, the European Union has very extensive privacy safeguards in place, and data breach notifications, at least to regulators, are de rigueur. So, again, if your business is big enough that it traverses your home country’s natural borders, then you’re going to have to fess up. Because people also excel at adding deux and deux together.
When Sullivan and Clark decided to conceal what had happened, they broke… the same law, essentially, oh-so-many-times. The fact that lawyers decided to take this approach (Sullivan, the unseated CSO, was a federal prosecutor earlier in his life) is surprising à la Schrodinger’s meow – that is, knowing what we do about Uber, surprising and unsurprising at the same time.
Things appear to be changing now that someone new is at the helm; otherwise, we may never have learned of the breach. And yet it feels as if the corporate miasma will take a while to disperse (from thenewstribune.com):
In a letter to Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office last week, an Uber attorney wrote that the company “now thinks it was wrong not to provide notice to affected users at the time” [of the 2016 Uber data breach].
Really? Now they think it was wrong?
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