Privacy Group’s FTC Complaint: Uber Shouldn’t Track Users When They’re Not Using The App

A digital-privacy group has filed a complaint against Uber, saying the company’s new privacy policy says it could use a rider’s location information to track where they are even when the app is running in the background, and also takes issue with the company’s policy regarding collecting address book information. The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C wants the FTC to investigate.

Under fire in the group’s complaint [PDF] is the new privacy policy for riders that Uber introduced in May, which is slated to go into effect on July 15.

Specifically, the part under “Location Information” that reads: “…we may also collect the precise location of your device when the app is running in the foreground or background. We may also derive your approximate location from your IP address.”

And in the “Contacts Information” section: “If you permit the Uber app to access the address book on your device through the permission system used by your mobile platform, we may access and store names and contact information from your address book to facilitate social interactions through our Services and for other purposes described in this Statement or at the time of consent or collection.”

EPIC says in its complaint that Uber’s updated privacy policy is an unlawful and deceptive trade practice.

“These changes ignore the FTC’s prior decisions, threaten the privacy rights and personal safety of American consumers, ignore past bad practices of the company involving the misuse of location data, pose a direct risk of consumer harm, and constitute an unfair and deceptive trade practice subject to investigation by the Federal Trade Commission,” the complaint reads.

“What the company calls a privacy announcement actually serves a different purpose,” Julia Horwitz, a coordinator at EPIC told Bloomberg News. “It actually gives the company many more permissions.”

Uber says these updated privacy polices don’t constitute a shift in a shift in practices, and are only meant to lay out what data the company collects and why.

“There is no basis for this complaint,” Uber said in a statement. “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. That is a significant improvement for riders and driver-partners. In our announcement we were also transparent about what new data we might collect going forward — and the fact that users will be in control.”

The company says it’s not currently collecting background location data and has no plans to do so starting July 15. It points out that users will be able to opt out of gathering location data in the background, if it chooses to start collecting that information, as well as choose not to share contact information with the app.

On iOS devices you can change such settings on an app-by-app basis, telling each app whether it can collect location data while you’re using the app, in the background or never. You can also limit which apps can use information in your address book.

But Android’s mobile platform applies such permissions to either all apps a user downloads, or none. If for example you don’t want your contacts to sync with Uber, you’d have to enter someone’s information manually, when you want to split a fare with a friend or share promotional offers.

Likewise with sharing location data: if an Android user wanted to bar Uber from refreshing location information the background, they would have to turn that off for all apps (which someone might want to do, understandably). That is, unless Google at some point changes its settings to allow users to modify settings for each individual app instead of across the entire platform.

Uber will notify users if it decides to start collecting information location in the background so users can take the appropriate steps to opt out, if they choose.

EPIC’s complaint goes on to say, however that even though users can disable these settings, “Uber can still collect location information through the phones’ IP addresses.”

To that, Uber again said EPIC’s allegations are misleading, and that it receives Internet-protocol addresses as part of the traffic data that all apps receive.

A spokesman for the FTC told Bloomberg that the agency carefully reviews complaints from consumers, but declined to comment on whether the FTC is investigating Uber’s practices.

Uber’s Customer Tracking Draws FTC Complaint From Privacy Group [Bloomberg]

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