Although it started off as a smartphone app to connect passengers with drivers, Uber Technologies is encountering the same real-world security issues as the taxi industry, includng the need for driver background checks and local regulatory compliance.
On top of this there are the risks involved in handling masses of customer and driver data, which became evident earlier this year when the company admitted driver data had been compromised.
On Thursday, Uber moved a step forward in its bid to fend off criticism of its security practices by appointing as its first chief security officer Joe Sullivan, a former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor and, more recently, Facebook's security chief.
"It's no longer about traditional metrics for safe transportation or keeping our community's data private and secure, but about how we lead efforts to redefine and strengthen physical and data security in the location-based world," CEO Travis Kalanick wrote Thursday in a blog post that appeared to define the agenda for Sullivan, who starts later this month.
"Our goal is to redefine what it means to be a world-class, people-centric protector of privacy," he added.
Uber said in February that the names and license plate numbers of about 50,000 Uber drivers were compromised in a security breach last year. About 21,000 of these drivers were in California.
Some of the company's drivers are facing charges, including in Delhi, where a driver is alleged to have raped a female passenger. The Delhi authorities want Uber to adhere to its new and stricter radio taxi rules, including offer a call center, have a registered office in Delhi and an official website with extensive information on its operations, and provide panic buttons in the vehicles.
Uber would like to be treated as a technology company under India's Information Technology Act, but the Delhi government wants it to also address issues on the ground such as the verification of drivers and the security of passengers.
Kalanick appeared to recognize that the company was more than an app provider in his blog post announcing Sullivan's appointment.
"It's easy to see the Uber logo on your phone and think of us as just an app," he said. "But in many ways we've become a critical part of the infrastructure of cities. We are both in cyberspace and on city streets all at once; a bridge between bits and atoms."
Sullivan too acknowledged this bridge: "I look forward to bringing the best practices that I've learned along the way to Uber and doing defining work in bridging the divide between the digital and physical worlds," he said in a separate post.
Uber said last month it would also establish a permanent and global safety advisory board to review its safety practices and recommend new safety features for its platform. It said it had created round-the-clock incident response teams on call worldwide. "The teams are distributed in regions around the globe and are there for those critical moments when a rapid resolution is needed," it added.
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