In many ways, there is no better single example of the digital world that we’re now living in than Uber. At its core, Uber is a company that lets consumers order a car through a smartphone app. Not only was it the first of its kind, but it also caused a significant amount of disruption to both the taxi cab industry and to the entire economy. Originally launched in 2009, Uber is seen by many as directly responsible for the birth of the “gig-based revolution” we’re now all a part of.
Uber has made headlines for essentially all of its existence for both good and bad reasons. Recently, Uber enjoyed a bit of positive press when it announced it would be turning its first self-driving fleet of vehicles onto the streets of Pittsburgh. On the other end of the spectrum is the recent firestorm of controversy the company suffered when it was revealed that a newly updated version of its app was actually tracking a customer’s location without their knowledge.
Uber and Background Tracking: What Happened?
In late 2016, Uber released an update to their flagship iOS app that changed how the location of a user was being tracked. Unlike prior versions – which only collected GPS and other location-based information when the app was open – the new version began collecting data from the moment a trip was requested until a full five minutes after the trip ended.
When asked about why the app needs to do this in the first place, an Uber spokesperson indicated that it was mainly used to help internal teams investigate any complaints, safety issues or other problems that occur before, during and after a ride. While this does seem legitimate, the way the situation was handled was less than satisfactory.
The major problem that Uber ran into was that they didn’t really tell anyone about this particular feature – it was something that was discovered slowly by the users themselves. It all hinges on a feature of the Apple iPhone called “Background App Refresh,” which allows apps to continue sending and receiving information “in the background” even if the user isn’t specifically interacting with them at the time.
Also problematic was the fact that users didn’t have a way to opt out of this newfound tracking method if they were concerned with their privacy. The only workaround was to enter into the “Settings” app on an iPhone, navigate to the “Privacy” screen and turn off “Location Services” for the Uber app. This harms the app itself, as when a user is requesting a ride the app legitimately DOES need to know where they currently are to pick them up. The Uber app only gives you the option to turn on or turn off “Location Services” – there is no middle ground.
To top it all off, Uber insiders revealed that there was really no limit to who within the company could access that location information. It wasn’t just customer support staff and service technicians – drivers could see that information, too. For someone who has a legitimate reason for not wanting a record about where they go five minutes after their relationship with a business ends, this represents a serious concern and a potentially massive invasion of privacy at the same time.
In many ways, Uber’s recent controversy just goes to underline the importance of understanding exactly what information you’re giving up for the sake of convenience and modern technology. Everyone knows that a smartphone has GPS functionality built in from the time of purchase – but do they really know which apps have access to that data and which do not? As GPS tracking in general has moved from a novelty to a ubiquitous part of life, one can assume that situations like these will become more and more common as time goes on.