Uber could track passengers after they leave car, privacy group claims

Turn on or off the "God View?" A privacy group is concerned that Uber could abuse user trust

A privacy rights organization lashed out against Uber on Monday, accusing the country’s largest ride-sharing company of plans to deceptively collect personal data under an updated privacy policy slated to roll out next month.

In a 23-page complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission, the Electronic Privacy Information Center called for the agency to investigate Uber and halt possible privacy invasions ahead of a revised policy set to take effect July 15.

“Uber’s revised privacy policy creates several risks for American consumers,” said EPIC in its complaint.

But Uber said in a statement that the complaint has “no basis” and that users would “be in control” of how they release personal information.  

“Our new privacy statements are much simpler to read and set out more clearly the data we collect, as well as how we use it,” the company said.

The biggest concern for EPIC, a Washington D.C.-based research center, is that Uber will collect location data from passengers even after they arrive at their destinations, as the Uber app can track GPS data if left running in the background of an iPhone, or other iOS device. Even users who turn off their GPS location finder could still be found through their phone IP address, which the privacy policy says offers a “unique identifier” for each user.

EPIC also claims that Uber will be able to access passenger’s contact lists, which it could use to send out promotional ads.

Such practices would not comprise new parts of the privacy policy. Rather, they are existing data collection possibilities that have come under scrutiny after Uber revised its policy May 28, with the intent, it said, to be jargon-free and clear to readers.

But exacerbating the possibility of privacy invasion, said EPIC, is that Uber could abuse its users’ trust. According to EPIC, Uber tracked the location of journalists reporting on the company who had used its app, and one employee shared that data within the company. Other employees had turned on “God View,” an internal program, to track customers without their knowledge.

Uber has acknowledged that it could potentially track location data and contact lists as it launches new features on the app, but said it would do so only with the permission of users. Whether that would be through opting-in or opting-out has yet to be seen. For now, Uber said it does not plan to begin either practice on July 15.  

“Users will be in control: they will be able to choose whether to share the data with Uber,” the company said in a statement.

The FTC could not be reached Monday, and has not publicly stated how it plans to address the complaint.

Twitter: @dainabethcita

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