Commentary

FTC Should Prevent Uber From Collecting 'Unnecessary' Information, Watchdog Says

The Federal Trade Commission should prevent ride-sharing service Uber from accessing users' contact lists or unnecessarily gathering users' geolocation data, the watchdog Electronic Privacy Information Center says in a complaint filed today.

“There is a clear divide between Uber's representations as to their consumers' control over their personal information, and Uber’s actual business practices,” EPIC alleges in its complaint. “Consumers are led to believe that they retain control over their personal data, when in fact they do not.”

EPIC's complaint comes in response to Uber's recent announcement of a new privacy policy, slated to take effect on July 15. Uber's new policy will ask people for permission to track their geolocation, even if the app is only running in the background.

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The company says users can control whether their location data is collected. But Uber also says that even if consumers disable their phones' GPS, it will track their location via IP addresses -- which can yield fairly precise location data.

“This collection of user’s information far exceeds what customers expect from the transportation service,” EPIC says. “Users would not expect the company to collect location information when customers are not actively using the app, or have turned off their GPS location finder.”

EPIC also takes issue with Uber's request to collect users' contacts for marketing purposes.

“Uber claims that it will allow users to opt-out of these features. However, this change in business practices places an unreasonable burden on consumers,” EPIC says.

While Uber's new privacy policy might raise eyebrows under any circumstances, the company's history of making questionable decisions regarding data practically guarantees that its new policies will face scrutiny.

In fact, EPIC refers to Uber's “history of abusing the location data of its customers” in the complaint.

In one highly publicized incident, a journalist for BuzzFeed reported last November that she took an Uber car to the company's New York office, only to learn upon arrival that her whereabouts were monitored while she was en route.

Prior to that, entrepreneur Peter Sims wrote in a blog post that Uber once disclosed his whereabouts to a roomful of party guests in Chicago. Sims wrote that was heading to Penn Station, in an Uber vehicle, when he began receiving text messages from a partygoer who appeared to know his exact location. “The party featured a screen that showed where in NYC certain 'known people' (whatever that means) were currently riding in Uber cabs,” he wrote. “After learning this, I expressed my outrage to her that the company would use my information and identity to promote its services without my permission. She told me to calm down, and that it was all a 'cool' event.”

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