Uber CEO Travis Kalanick seems determined to ensure the ride-hailing service wins no matter what, a mindset that has led him into difficulty more than once. The latest story to emerge about his misdeeds involves Uber almost getting kicked out the App Store for deliberately deceiving Apple to violate users’ privacy.
Uber started its life as UberCab, a service that began operations in San Francisco in May 2010. Kalanick quickly positioned his start-up as an alternative to the taxi industry and ignored regulations that would have hampered the business, such as base stations for cabs and rigorous safety measures. In October 2010, the company shortened its name to Uber after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from San Francisco officials who accused it of marketing itself as a taxi company without the proper licenses and permits.
The deliberate deception of Apple, the main distributor of Uber’s app, started in 2014. It began as Uber attempted to curb widespread account fraud in places like China. Some Uber drivers in those areas bought stolen iPhones and used them to create dozens of fake email addresses to sign up for new Uber rider accounts. The drivers then requested rides from those phones and accepted them, earning incentives Uber was offering to drivers to take more rides.
Uber developed a way to identify an iPhone by using a small piece of code that would track the particular device even after the device was erased of its contents. Unfortunately for Uber, this violated Apple’s rules for apps distributed through the App Store. Kalanick tried to get around this by “geofencing” Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. so Uber could obfuscate its code for Apple employees at its headquarters. However, Apple engineers outside of Cupertino caught on to Uber’s methods and alerted headquarters.
In early 2015, Uber was summoned to Apple’s offices for violating Apple’s privacy guidelines. Apple CEO Tim Cook reportedly brought Kalanick into his office and told him that Uber would be kicked out of the App Store if he didn’t stop. It’s no surprise that Apple takes the privacy of its iPhone users very seriously. The company famously resisted FBI demands to crack into a terrorist’s iPhone.
Losing access to millions of iPhone users would have destroyed Uber’s business, so it capitulated to Apple’s demands. According to reports, Uber never had the ability to track users’ location or otherwise control or monitor iOS devices. Uber denied using its app to track individual riders’ locations and justified its decision saying, “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.”
What Uber did on the iPhones is not prohibited for devices running on the Android operating system. Google itself facilitates device tracking on Android and there are far fewer restrictions on collecting data from or about Android users. Facebook and other apps have exploited this access to Android users’ data in ways that are commonly blocked on iOS.