Fingerprint Apple's iPhones? Add it to the list of things Uber has done

travis kalanik uber
Heisenberg Media

Saying that Uber has found itself in some hot water lately might be a bit of an understatement.

The ride-hailing company has been embroiled in scandal after scandal recently, with a new one coming to light over the weekend. This one involves Uber deliberately trying to track iPhones and dupe Apple about it. So what happened?

In IT Blogwatch, we go for a ride.

So what is going on? Steven Musil has the background:

Apple takes the privacy of its iPhone users very seriously...So it was understandable that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick might have been...anxious before a 2015 meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook.
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The reason? Kalanick had been directing his engineers to camouflage a feature...that allowed Uber to secretly identify and tag iPhone users, even after the app had been deleted from users' phones.

Well, that doesn't sound too good for Uber. But why was the the company doing that? JC Torres has that info:

Back in 2014, the...ride-hailing service was facing...fraud [in China]. Drivers who wanted to take advantage of Uber’s incentives for raking up the trips would register multiple iPhones as fake passengers. Uber needed a way to fight this system and chose to fingerprint iPhones as its countermeasure.
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Fingerprinting a device means identifying it as something unique, like an unchanging serial number...In Uber’s case, this meant that the Uber app could identify it has been installed on an iPhone, presumably a banned or blocked one, already...that happens even after the iPhone has been wiped clean of any data.

Leaving a digital fingerprint on an iPhone isn't great for Uber, but it gets worse. Rhett Jones explains how Uber kept Apple from finding all this out:

Kalanick and co. decided to use a technique called geofencing to prevent Apple from noticing...Uber’s engineers programmed their app to not display the offending code on any phones accessing the app in the region around Apple’s headquarters. It was a ruse with a short lifespan and Tim Cook called Kalanick up for a meeting.

So what exactly happened during that meeting? The New York Times' Mike Isaac, who broke the story, has the details:

When Mr. Kalanick arrived at the...meeting...Mr. Cook was prepared. “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Mr. Cook said...Stop the trickery, Mr. Cook then demanded, or Uber’s app would be kicked out of Apple’s App Store...Mr. Kalanick acceded.
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Mr. Kalanick was shaken by Mr. Cook’s scolding...But only momentarily. After all, Mr. Kalanick had faced off against Apple, and Uber had survived. He had lived to fight another day.

What does Uber have to say about all of this? Charlie Osborne gathered up its responses:

In a statement, an Uber spokesperson told The Verge..."We absolutely do not track individual users or their location if they've deleted the app...Similar techniques are also used for detecting and blocking suspicious logins to protect our users' accounts."
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Speaking to TechCrunch, Uber said that a form of device fingerprinting is still in use, but one that complies with Apple's rules. If a device has been associated with fraud in the past, new sign-ups...raise a red flag.

Uber has been involved in other scandals recently, hasn't it? Mike Murphy fills us in:

In recent months, Uber has come under fire for evading regulators through its “Greyball” program, been accused of rampant sexual harassment, been sued by...Waymo for allegedly stealing driverless-car trade secrets and faces a possible $1.1 million fine by California regulators for its handling of drunken-driver complaints. It has also seen an exodus of top executives. Kalanick, meanwhile, is seeking...a chief operating officer who can help the company grow up.

But what does all this ultimately mean? Matthew Dessem has some thoughts:

Uber and its CEO crossing legal and ethical lines in a relentless quest to extract maximum value for investors is the very definition of a dog bites man story, but the details...are particularly nasty. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if there might be something wrong with a system that routinely produces companies that behave this way.
  
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