Uber's ability to track your location is a big part of how they're able to provide speedy pick-ups for customers around the world. But according to a new report from the New York Times, they may have stepped over the line in their pursuit of expansion.
The chief executive officer of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was profiled in a story about a tumultuous time for the ride-sharing app. In an effort to shine a light on the difficulties facing Kalanick, the Times revealed a stunning detail: Uber was identifying and tagging iPhone users even after they deleted their app, which forced Apple CEO Tim Cook to step in.
For months, Mr. Kalanick had pulled a fast one on Apple by directing his employees to help camouflage the ride-hailing app from Apple’s engineers. The reason? So Apple would not find out that Uber had been secretly identifying and tagging iPhones even after its app had been deleted and the devices erased — a fraud detection maneuver that violated Apple’s privacy guidelines.
But Apple was on to the deception, and when Mr. Kalanick arrived at the midafternoon meeting sporting his favorite pair of bright red sneakers and hot-pink socks, Mr. Cook was prepared. “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Mr. Cook said in his calm, Southern tone. Stop the trickery, Mr. Cook then demanded, or Uber’s app would be kicked out of Apple’s App Store.
Though there's an understanding amongst younger tech users that your privacy is being compromised on a daily basis, this is an extraordinary overreach on Uber's part. Not only was Uber using their app to violate the privacy of their users, it was doing so intentionally and deceptively, in an effort to get around Apple's policy on the matter.
The practice is just one of several ruthless decisions made by Uber under Kalanick's authority. Uber didn't become a global phenomenon by accident, and several unsavory practices were implemented in order to kneecap their competitors and dodge regulations that affected other players in the transportation industry. In places around the world where Uber service was deemed illegal, drivers were instructed to use an app called Greyball, which effectively allowed them to evade law enforcement by disguising the locations of cars and drivers.
Not everyone was so focused on the invasion of privacy from Uber, and some readers had a little fun at Kalanick's expense:
It should be noted The New York Times originally printed their story with the word "tracking" in place of the phrase "identifying and tagging". In response to the controversy stemming from the initial story, Uber provided Complex with the following statement:
We absolutely do not track individual users or their location if they’ve deleted the app. As the New York Times story notes towards the very end, this is a typical way to prevent fraudsters from loading Uber onto a stolen phone, putting in a stolen credit card, taking an expensive ride and then wiping the phone—over and over again. Similar techniques are also used for detecting and blocking suspicious logins to protect our users' accounts. Being able to recognize known bad actors when they try to get back onto our network is an important security measure for both Uber and our users.
Uber's overarching policy was perhaps best described by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who described Kalanick with a brief quote.
“Travis’s biggest strength is that he will run through a wall to accomplish his goals," said Cuban. “Travis’s biggest weakness is that he will run through a wall to accomplish his goals. That’s the best way to describe him.”
Kalanick was previously under fire for being part of President Trump's advisory council. He has since resigned from the position after a social media campaign to delete the ride-sharing app was launched.