Uber says it’s not behind the phone calls to investigate Susan Fowler’s personal life

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Travis Kalanick, CEO, Uber

After a week of controversy — and heavy criticism from its employees, the media and some investors for allowing what one called a "toxic" work culture to thrive — Uber remains on the defense.

Today, the company told Recode it's not behind the calls and other methods of communication being made to people who may know Susan Fowler in search of "personal and intimate" information. It was the former engineer who wrote an explosive blog post about sexism and sexual harassment at the ride-hailing company earlier this week.

"Uber is in no way involved," a spokesperson said. "This behavior is wrong."

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Uber said it is speaking for all of those involved in the investigation, including the law firm hired to conduct it, Covington and Burling.

Then who is? It's not clear, according to Fowler, who noted that "several" friends had been contacted, including people she had not spoken to since high school.

"[They] have reached out in concern, because they have been contacted by people asking for personal information about me," Fowler told Recode in an email. "I do not know who is doing this or why."

Although she said didn't know who was doing it, she tweeted earlier today that she had been notified that people were being contacted for information about her and asked that those who were report it immediately.

Immediately, people on Twitter denounced Uber for propagating the campaign. Not so, said Uber.

But it's not hard to understand why people would jump to that conclusion, since the company has hired an outside firm to investigate people in the past.

At the end of 2015, Uber hired a CIA-linked firm called Ergo to look into Spencer Meyer, a plaintiff who was suing the company and its CEO Travis Kalanick for price-fixing. The company also used the same firm to investigate a separate plaintiff named Andrew Schmidt.

Following a story that I wrote at my previous position at BuzzFeed , at least four people reached out to me to tell me they were approached by investigators from a firm called TAL Global — the managing director of which is Errol Southers who was nominated by President Barack Obama to be the undersecretary of the Transportation Security Administration in 2010 — because they were suspected of leaking internal company documents to me.

One person who was suspected of leaking documents to me alleged that an investigator there on behalf of Uber forced his way into her apartment.

To be fair, many companies use legitimate investigators for all kinds of reasons to protect themselves.

In addition, there are a spate of alternative possibilities.

While Fowler's story has brought light to the pervasive sexism at Uber, it also exposes the former Uber engineer to critics, anti-feminists, and people with a vendetta against the ride-hailing company — of which there are many.

In the comments reacting to Fowler's blog post, for example, there were many people who were angered by her claims and demanded "proof" of her harassment. Fowler has since closed the comments section.

There's also the possibility that a company, group, or organization — someone with a stake in a competitor, for example — has it out for Uber and is attempting to dig the company into an even deeper hole than it already is in.

In other words, expect this story to get more complex and confusing as it proceeds. Uber has not said when its investigation or recommendations of how to fix the company culture will be done. But Kalanick has publicly promised to make Uber "better."

By Johana Bhuiyan, Recode.net.

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.

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