Uber has long been the suspect of user tracking allegations on iOS, with the company itself addressing the problem as recently as last year. A new wide-ranging profile from The New York Times, however, offers more detail on Uber’s location tracking habits, and how they almost got the app banned from the App Store…
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The profile covers a variety of different things about Uber and is well worth a read, but the most startling tidbit of information is just how far Uber went in trying to trick Apple engineers. What Uber wanted to do was assign a persistent identity to iPhones with a small piece of code, better referred to as “fingerprinting.” This tactic, however, is in complete violation of Apple’s rules as the company believes a device should offer no trace of the owner’s identify after being erased.
Here’s how Uber maneuvered around these rules:
So Mr. Kalanick told his engineers to “geofence” Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., a way to digitally identify people reviewing Uber’s software in a specific location. Uber would then obfuscate its code from people within that geofenced area, essentially drawing a digital lasso around those it wanted to keep in the dark. Apple employees at its headquarters were unable to see Uber’s fingerprinting.
As you might expect, however, it didn’t take long for Apple and its engineers to catch on to Uber’s tactics and the issues went straight to the top. Tim Cook called Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to come meet with him on Apple’s campus. Cook reportedly opened the meeting with a simple, “So I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules.”
He went on to demand that Uber stop the fingerprinting and put the app back in compliance with Apple’s privacy guidelines. The consequence for refusing this demand from Cook, was that Uber would be removed from the App Store.
For Mr. Kalanick, the moment was fraught with tension. If Uber’s app was yanked from the App Store, it would lose access to millions of iPhone customers — essentially destroying the ride-hailing company’s business. So Mr. Kalanick acceded.