[By Susan Fowler]
In February 2017, I published a blog post about my experiences with sexual harassment and gender discrimination at Uber, where I had recently left my role as a software engineer. In it, I described a year of employment that began with a sexual proposition from my manager and only grew more demeaning and demoralizing from there. The post quickly went viral, tapping into a conversation about systemic discrimination throughout Silicon Valley.
What I wrote changed the world, some said: for the first time, a woman had spoken up about mistreatment, the world listened to her, and she walked away unscathed. And, in those early days, it really did seem that I had turned the tables, and I started to wonder if most of my fears had been unfounded. It seemed too good to be true. And it was. I was soon jolted out of my daydream, and I awakened into a nightmare.
It started with strange stories from my family, friends and acquaintances. Reporters had been contacting them from day one and asking for information about me, but now they were also being contacted by people who didn’t seem to be reporters at all, who asked questions about my personal life, questions about my past.
Initially, it was mostly my relatives and friends from Silicon Valley who were being contacted, but then they—whoever “they” were—began contacting people I hadn’t spoken to in years, like an old neighbor I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager. “Someone’s digging really deep on you, Susan,” my neighbor said, “and it’s scary how far back they’re going.” Whoever was trying to dig up dirt on me was going deep into my history, talking to people that I’d forgotten I’d even known. I didn’t know who was trying to get this information, and I didn’t know how they were able to find out so much about my past. I didn’t know what they were looking for, and I didn’t know what they were going to find. It was terrifying.
Eventually, private investigators started reaching out to me directly. At the time, I rarely answered my phone, but one day, when I was waiting for a furniture delivery and expecting the furniture company to call me, I received a call from a number I didn’t recognize and I answered it. A woman was on the line. She gave me her name, identified herself as a private investigator, claimed that she was working on a case against Uber, and asked me to help her. I declined with a laugh, then did some detective work on my own; a quick Google search showed that the PI firm that she worked for had been hired in the past for cases in which people were trying to discredit victims of sexual misconduct.
I was being attacked on other fronts, too. My phone would “ding” whenever I received a two‐factor authentication text belonging to my email or social media accounts, which meant that someone was trying to access them. I changed my passwords frequently, and eventually got a second phone for 2FA texts, but it wasn’t enough. My Facebook account was hacked several times, as were several old email accounts I hadn’t used in years. Around the same time, my younger sister’s Facebook account was hacked. The moment she told me that someone else had gotten into her account, I logged in and looked at the messages I’d recently sent her. I watched in horror as they went from “unread” to “read.”
I started to hear rumors about myself and my motivations in writing the post—rumors that were often accompanied by phrases like “someone close to Uber,” “someone close to the board” or even “someone at Uber.” The first rumor I’d heard had come from a reporter who called me in late February to see if I could confirm something: that Lyft had paid me to write a defamatory blog post about its primary competitor. It was obviously false, and I told the reporter so. Within a few days, I heard versions of the same rumor from other reporters, from people in the tech industry and from employees at Uber, all centered on Lyft’s paying me to write the blog post.
As soon as this rumor died down, another one quickly took its place: that powerful venture capitalists in Silicon Valley had been responsible for writing the blog post and making it go viral; in some versions of this rumor, those “powerful people” were investors in Lyft, Google or my husband’s company. A reporter from Business Insider wrote in an email (which I never responded to) that she was covering a “conspiracy theory that someone related to your husband’s company encouraged you to write the post and then helped it go viral after you wrote it.”
As terrifying and infuriating as the investigations and rumors were, nothing was as scary as being followed, which started happening shortly after I published the post that February. I noticed a peculiar car parked outside my house. When I walked from my house to the BART station on my way to the office, I’d often see the same car drive past me. (Or is it really the same one? I would wonder.) Whenever I left the office, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being followed. I told myself that I was imagining it.
Then, one afternoon in early March, I left work earlier than usual. As I walked down the back steps and turned the corner toward the street, I noticed a man jump—as if in surprise—and start walking after me. I changed directions as I walked, going down side streets, and whenever I glanced back, I saw him following a short distance behind. I eventually ducked into a Whole Foods, and watched as he walked past, sighing in relief. But when I went back out into the street, the man was leaning on a tree, looking down at the sidewalk. I had to walk past him, and he followed closely behind until he moved ahead of me, stopped, turned around and looked right at me. Panic rose in my throat, and I felt my heart beating so loudly I could hear it. I looked around for the police, hoping to find someone, anyone, who could help. Then I bolted as fast as I could down the street, into the BART station and onto a train.
That was the first time I knew I was definitely being followed, and it wasn’t the last.
I didn’t know who or what I was up against. I suspected it was Uber, though at the time I had no concrete evidence to back that up. Several security researchers offered to look into it, and came back with the names of various private investigation firms that Uber had hired in the past. Its most recent PI firm, I was told, was Ergo, an opposition research company run by former CIA operatives. This terrified me even more.
I feared that Uber would send a private investigator to break into my home, either while I was there or while I was out. Another former employee, Morgan Richardson, described an intimidating incident with an investigator who entered her apartment without her permission (Uber denied that the man came inside). If they did it to her, what would stop them from doing it to me? What if, I wondered, someone had already come to my home and I just didn’t know?
A deep, aching terror fell over me as I prepared for the worst parts of my life to become public. Meanwhile, I was growing increasingly isolated—I was working from home, and there were very few people I could talk to about the things that were happening; more than once, I confided in a friend, only to have our conversation parroted back to me by a reporter a few days later.
I felt sick to my stomach every day and had trouble sleeping. I’d lie awake in the middle of the night, racking my brain for memories of every mean thing I’d ever said, every mistake I’d ever made, every wrong thing I’d ever done, every lie I’d ever told, every person I’d ever hurt. I was haunted by every fight, every angry text message, every mean word, every breakup. I went over and over in my head everything I’d said that could be misinterpreted, that could put me in a bad light and undermine the authority of my claims.
At times, the anxiety, fear and horror of it got so bad that I would curl up into a ball on the floor and cry until I felt numb. Sometimes I would stand in the shower, turn on the water, cover my mouth with my hands and scream until my voice was hoarse. Part of what felt so scary was the randomness of it all: I never knew what to expect. One morbid thought gave me comfort, however, and it’s what I told myself every time I noticed someone following me, or whenever I was warned about possible threats against my life: if anything happened to me, if I was harmed or killed, everyone would know exactly who was responsible.
Three years have passed since I published that blog post and shared the story of what I experienced at Uber. The company hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate its culture, which ultimately led to CEO Travis Kalanick’s departure—and just months later, my story became part of a watershed movement against sexual misconduct. I could never have predicted the positive impact my story had in Silicon Valley and throughout the world, nor could I have predicted the backlash and terror that my loved ones and I faced because of it. And I’ve asked myself countless times whether I would do it all over again if I truly knew just how bad the bad part of speaking out would be.
Some days, when I think about all of this, I wish I hadn’t come forward. At times I fear that if I could have seen how this decision would affect my life, I would not have gone through with it. But that would have been the wrong choice. Writing that post was the right thing to do, regardless of the consequences.
Speaking up comes at great personal cost. Being a whistleblower is not easy. It is not glamorous or fun. It will terrify you and scare you and forever change your life in ways that will be beyond your control. But, despite all of this, shining a light in the darkness is the right thing to do. In some cases, like my own, it is the only way to leave the world better than you found it.