Another day, another Uber controversy. The latest incident comes from a report in the New York Times, which claims that Apple CEO Tim Cook threatened to remove Uber's app from the App Store after learning it tracked former users even after being deleted. But the company denies it did anything wrong.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick reportedly told his staff to use this “fingerprinting” technique, which is banned by Apple’s privacy requirements, as a fraud prevention method in locations such as China, where drivers were registering multiple Uber accounts on stolen iPhones and using them to request rides. All those extra rides meant Uber paid out more bonuses to the drivers.
To stop Apple finding out what it was up to, Uber reportedly geofenced the iPhone maker’s Cupertino headquarters to hide the code used in the fingerprinting process. But Apple engineers at other offices discovered what it was doing, leading to a confrontation between Cook and Kalanick.
In an early 2015 meeting, Cook told Kalanick that he’d “heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” warning him that if the practice wasn’t stopped, the Uber app would be removed from Apple’s store.
“Mr. Kalanick was shaken by Mr. Cook’s scolding, according to a person who saw him after the meeting,” writes the Times. Understandable, given the damage Uber would have suffered if Cook followed through on his threat.
Since the article was published, Uber has released a statement on the matter. The company suggested to TechCrunch that it has modified the fingerprinting technique to comply with Apple’s rules, rather than removing it completely.
“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,” an Uber spokesperson said.
The news is the latest in long line of bad publicity for Uber. It’s had to deal with revelations over its Hell software, Greyball, sexism allegations, a lawsuit from Alphabet over self-driving technology theft, Kalanick’s argument with a driver, and the CEO's visit to an escort bar in South Korea.