Should Uber be able to track you even when you’re not using its app? Uber seems to think so, but some customers are worried that the ride-sharing giant is yet again overstepping its bounds.
Last month, Uber launched a major update to its app, streamlining many of its features in the interest of making it easier to use than ever. As part of the refresh, the company is now asking customers for their permission to collect location data even when they are not using the app. This includes tracking riders five minutes after their trip ends, and even when the app is in the background of a customer’s smartphone.
Uber says it needs to be able to track its customers even when they’re not using the app in the interest of being the most precise transportation service around. But some riders are peeved that the ride-sharing company, with the help of Apple, is now limiting customers’ options in how much location data they want to share.
Uber now demands location data even when you're not using the app. Can't this be fixed by closing the app or restricting background refresh?— Richard Goldberg Esq (@GoldbergLawDC) November 30, 2016
Apple typically offers three location-based settings: "Never"; "While Using the App"; and "Always." Up until recently, Uber requested the "While Using the App" permission. But Apple gives developers the ability to effectively disable the "While Using the App" permission, forcing users to choose between "Never" and "Always," which is exactly what Uber has done in its latest update.
“It felt pretty icky having to tap ‘Always’ knowing what I was giving up without any recourse,” one rider told The Verge. This source, who is also product lead at another Silicon Valley-based gig economy company and requested anonymity to vent, said that choosing “Never” effectively renders the Uber app useless.
“Why disable ‘While Using the App’? Empower users to decide what and when location data is shared,” the source complained. “I simply don't trust Uber to limit their location tracking to ‘five minutes after the trip ends.’ There's nothing I can do to enforce this as an end user given Uber's removal of the ‘While Using the App’ setting.”
Uber insists it will restrict its tracking of customers to the five-minute limit. And it claims that because of the way Apple sets up its permissions, this is only possible with the “always” permission, even though Uber will only be collecting trip-related location with this change.
“We’re always thinking about ways we can improve the rider experience from sharpening our ETA estimates to identifying the best pick up location on any given street,” a spokesperson said in an email. “Location is at the heart of the Uber experience, and we’re asking riders to provide us with more information to achieve these goals.”
Uber says it wants this expanded location data to improve pick-ups and drop-offs, especially in markets where reverse geocoding is inaccurate. This is also important considering Uber wants to let riders share their locations and estimated arrival times with friends and family through the app after the latest refresh.
While Uber seems to be deflecting some of the responsible for limiting riders’ choices in how much data they want to share, it seems like Android users are getting fewer options than iPhone owners. iOS users who choose to “Never” share location data are forced to manually enter their pick-up address, while Android users aren’t even getting that option, instead faced with a message that simply reads “Please enable location services.” We asked Uber to respond to this discrepancy and will update the story when we hear back.
Of course, Uber has run into privacy concerns in the past. After it was reported that one of its employees tracked a journalist's location using an internal tool called "God View," the company was forced to pay a $20,000 settlement, agree to scrap the feature, and revise its privacy policies.
To be sure, Uber is unlikely to lose to many customers over this change in policy. As the internet and smartphones become more ubiquitous in our lives, people are exhibiting less discomfort with the idea of having their search habits and locations tracked by huge tech companies with little oversight. Privacy recedes further into the distance as the companies tell us it’s all in the interest of better, faster, more precise service. Because who wants to the hassle of manually entering your address every time you use Uber? What a drag.
Update November 30th, 2:04PM ET: An Uber spokesperson said the Android discrepancy should be fixed by updating the app.