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Uber's Ruby Zefo Has a Reputation for Getting Things Done (with AI)

Nitant Narang

Since joining Uber as its first chief privacy officer in 2018, AI Visionary Ruby Zefo has been the driving force behind their industry-leading privacy initiatives. We sat down with Ruby to discuss her early introduction to artificial intelligence, her variegated career, and how she contextualizes privacy in the modern enterprise.

The privacy function is relatively new and the chief privacy officer role, in particular, has only emerged in the last decade or so. How and when did privacy become an organizational imperative? And, more broadly, why is privacy having such a long and protracted cultural moment?

It’s true that the CPO role really started proliferating over the last decade or so, but there were soldiers fighting for our privacy rights for a lot longer. The trigger for the uptick in attention on privacy was the confluence of personal data collection and processing speeds that created big data and profiling, new technologies, apps, and services using that data, and laws like the EU’s GDPR that were created to help govern data privacy and protection rights. And because this confluence is still continuing and evolving, privacy never seems to stop having a moment. You’re also right that there is a lot of history and culture that drive how people feel about protecting privacy rights, while still gaining value from the good experiences that can be obtained from innovation and new technologies.

After you started your career as an attorney, a quick glance at your LinkedIn shows that you’ve held up to 12 different positions in several different organizations over the course of your career so far. You even described your pivot into privacy as a “career disruption” in a previous interview. Can you speak to how you have created so many opportunities and expanded your repertoire of skills and knowledge?

Two things have driven my constant need to be learning something new, which is the source of these career disruptions: the first is my short attention span, and the second is my need to feel like I’ve accomplished something of value every day. But it can be hard to break out of the corners into which other people will try to put you for their convenience, and to combat recency bias—both are ways to unfairly limit your reputation and potential to what you’re doing right now. You have to focus on planning your next moves yourself, by observing business needs and gaps, ways to contribute, and things you’re passionate about. And then start helping in those areas. Once you have a reputation for getting a variety of things done, it becomes easier to find new opportunities and take more chances.

At Intel, you led the team that provided legal support to its AI division. Was this your first formal introduction to AI? What were your early impressions of AI at the time?

It wasn’t my first introduction, but it was my deepest dive at the time. My early impression was that people’s fears of AI imminently taking over the world were wholly unfounded. We just needed to better communicate all that the broad term “AI” encompasses, as well as all the benefits of responsible AI. I still believe that responsible AI has significant potential to make our lives better. Yes, we still have to work out proper governance, and that will evolve over time. Issues like bias in AI start with the humans behind it and our society still has a lot of work to do there.

We just need to better communicate all that the broad term “AI” encompasses, as well as all the benefits of responsible AI.

At a WSJ conference in 2021, you alluded to how Uber’s privacy and legal teams play an integral role in the product life cycle, alongside the product and engineering teams. How does your team stay on top of the nuances and differences between privacy laws across all the different jurisdictions that Uber operates in? How can privacy teams work in lockstep with other teams such that they don’t delay development and commercialization, but complement it?

There is no way to stay on top of legal and technical developments besides investing the time to read and stay engaged. The way to complement innovation is to help people understand the basics of the legal environment, create frameworks and policies that provide guardrails within which they can work, be responsive and helpful and equally interested in their business challenges and how they do things, and embed people throughout the company to help (for example, via our Privacy Champions program). I often analogize privacy- and security-by-design to safety—they are entitlements like air bags and seatbelts in a car. Nobody complains that these things hamper a vehicle’s design; in fact, we depend on them so that we can forget about safety concerns and enjoy the ride. That’s the way we should be thinking about privacy and security.

Tech companies are waking up to the ethical considerations of using AI, with major companies recruiting ethicists into their ranks. At a high level, could you speak to Uber’s ethical framework in its utilization of AI?

AI isn’t a standalone for Uber regarding ethics and fairness in our business operations. Uber is committed to being an anti-racist company, and in 2020, we pledged to take a specific set of actions to become a more inclusive and equitable company. This includes rigorously measuring and improving the impact of our products, developing anti-racism training and resources for our users, and improving diversity at Uber to better represent the global communities we serve. We have a team of people working on that, and we also hired an expert in inclusive design.

What are your thoughts on the Artificial Intelligence Act proposed by the EU? How will it impact companies like Uber? Is there an AI regulation on the horizon for the US as well?

The EU draft is still in its early stages, so my hope as it goes through the continued drafting process is that it receives a lot of stakeholder input and becomes more practical, more capable of incorporating technological changes that will always come over time, and more consistent with existing laws like GDPR. In the US, I think we’ll see efforts to regulate some form of AI that start smaller than an omnibus law, similar to the sectoral privacy laws we have right now—AI/ML in context.

You joined Uber in 2018, right in the middle of a massive cultural and organizational transformation. What have you learned from your experience at Uber so far, and what are the wins and contributions that you are proudest of?

At that time, Uber had learned a lot from past mistakes, embraced that we needed to do better, and was in the process of taking many actions to make things better. The impressive thing about Uber now is how fast we can act when something needs to be done, and also doing the right thing, one of our cultural norms. Our reaction to COVID-19 is just one example—in addition to new food delivery initiatives, we completed a number of important safety initiatives like mask verification, providing free sanitizing supplies to drivers, and offering free meals and rides to essential workers when they needed it most. My team contributes by evaluating the privacy impacts of new initiatives and helping advise on the design; for example, our mask verification technology does not use biometric data. These things make me very proud because they go beyond Uber to making a better environment for everyone.

You have been an outspoken advocate of diversity and inclusion and have championed it on many fora. How do you think organizations foster more diversity in the workplace? What, in your opinion, have been the structural impediments to diversity, and what are the ways in which these can be removed?

Diverse teams can become our single greatest asset because they drive innovation. Diversity and inclusion aren’t just about redesigning a single system or process but rather giving people developmental opportunities that change everyday behaviors and attitudes. To do that, we need to create specific initiatives that root out old attitudes and behaviors in ways where the impact they have is measured and improved. On a personal level, I’ve found true stories told from the heart to be very effective. It can be painful to relive past degradations, but it brings the point home in ways that help people understand that bigotry and its butterfly effects are still happening in many ways that impact people’s health, opportunities, wealth, and even their basic ability to live, as we’ve seen many times, including recently.

Diversity and inclusion aren’t just about redesigning a single system or process but rather giving people developmental opportunities that change everyday behaviors and attitudes.

What do you do when you are not working? How do you decompress?

Pre-COVID I was big on getting out and about—concerts, dinners, plays … all kinds of social activities. More recently, I’ve exercised more, started meditating again, picked up more books, watched more movies, cooked more, and tried very hard not to need bigger lounging pants. Taking concrete steps to better care for both my group at work and myself has really paid off.

Which person (living or deceased) do you most admire?

Not one person, but many: people who put themselves at risk to better the lives of everyone. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ghandi, Chief Joseph, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Nelson Mandela, the Lovings, Gloria Steinem, the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter, Malala, Bryan Stevenson … So many. These people aren’t/weren’t perfect, but they gave all they had to make a difference.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Every time I make someone smile or laugh, I consider it an achievement. There are some tough customers out in the world but I’ll keep at it until I succeed.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

I don’t suppose Tina Fey counts?

What do you consider the most underrated quality or skill?

Compassion. According to the Dalai Lama, compassion gives us inner strength; it gives us self-confidence and that reduces fear, which, in turn, keeps our mind calm. And this causes happiness. The most unhappy people I know are the most selfish. Caring about others is the fix.

Nitant Narang is a member of the marketing team at Relativity

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