After Uber introduced a controversial app update that tracks users’ locations even when they’re not using the app, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading privacy group, has asked the company roll it back.
In the updated version of its app, Uber offers users two options: you can either allow Uber to always track your location (though the company says it will only track users for five minutes after a ride ends), or you can turn off the app’s tracking entirely. That means you’d have to manually enter your pickup location when requesting rides.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has asked Uber to return to an option that allows users to only share their location while using the app – not afterward, Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director and general counsel at EFF, told BuzzFeed News.
“Tracking you five minutes after you have been dropped off — some people might have very legitimate reasons why they don’t want a record about that,” Opsahl said. “They may be concerned about getting into some database about their location and may get dropped off across the street. It’s sad to take that away.”
An Uber spokeswoman told BuzzFeed News that by offering the option of manually entering pick-up locations, the company is giving users a choice to be tracked or not. But Opsahl says this “takes away a lot of the usability.” Part of Uber’s appeal is how easy it is to open the app and let GPS pinpoint your location for a driver.
“As you’re trying to get picked up by the side of the road, you might not know what address you’re at,” Opsahl said. “I guess you could turn it on and off again...but that’s pretty clunky as well.”
Opsahl said EFF’s conversation with Uber is still ongoing, but he hopes “Uber sees that looking out for the customers first and considering their privacy needs and preferences is a better way to be a good company.” Earlier this year, the EFF praised Uber for “taking steps to facilitate transparency and user privacy” in an annual review comparing how companies respond to government requests for user information.
An Uber spokeswoman told BuzzFeed News that tracking users for five minutes after their rides end would provide data that could improve the pickup and drop-off experience. Do people get dropped off on the opposite side of the street from their destinations and have to cross through traffic after exiting the car? Can people be given better directions to faster pickup locations to speed up an UberPool ride? The company also says that knowing where exactly riders are when they exit cars could also help customer service representatives investigate complaints or safety issues.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for speech, privacy, and technology at the American Civil Liberties Union, called the change “a fairly aggressive use of a customer’s data.”
“If Uber wants to make a case to its customers that they stand to benefit from additional uses of data, it should make that case and let customers opt in,” he said. “The five-minute thing is disturbing. Obviously that’s not 24/7 tracking, but they are reserving themselves the ability to do that, which is even scarier.”
An Uber spokeswoman said the company would tell users if it decides to extend collection of data beyond the five-minute mark. But users who opt to share location data have technically already given Uber permission to do so.
And in January, Uber paid a $20,000 fine as part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over failure to report unauthorized third-party access to drivers’ personal information and after BuzzFeed News reported that the company used an aerial tracking tool called “God View” to identify riders. As part of that settlement, the company also agreed to limit access to rider geolocation data to employees who needed it for “legitimate business purposes.”
Priya Anand is a tech and transportation reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Priya Anand at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.