Recent changes Uber has made to the way it collects location data have sparked controversy. Previously, the Uber app only accessed your location when you were using the app. On the other hand, the latest update tracks your location even after closing the app.
Uber says it only collects location data for up to five minutes after you leave, to better optimize pickups. This data will allow him to see where people leave the taxi and where they go next. This, Uber says, allows it to improve taxi pick-up and drop-off points.
However, all of this comes at the expense of your privacy. On iOS, you could previously allow Uber’s app to access your location “While using the app” or “Never”. It changed to “Always” or “Never”. This means that although Uber is only tracking you for five minutes at a time right now, it could start doing detailed location tracking without having to take any further permissions, and you would never know. To be fair to Uber, since the change we haven’t seen the app tracking our location data for more than 30 seconds after leaving the taxi, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Uber has been accused of abusing a “God View” feature to track a journalist and its employees have been accused of using the company’s tracking data to spy on celebrities and their acquaintances. If the company had a better track record when it comes to protecting your privacy, it probably wouldn’t be so bad.
However, Uber doesn’t have a great track record, and letting its app know where you are at all times doesn’t seem like a good idea. Not only does this open up that data to Uber and its employees, but in a world where high profile hacks are all too common, it’s downright risky to pass that kind of data to any company.
Removing the “While using the app” setting from location permissions broke the app, in the sense that it no longer works as intended. If you change the location access permission to Never, the app becomes almost completely unusable. When I opened Uber to call a cab, the app showed me a world map and couldn’t pinpoint my location. It also didn’t show me a popup to manually enter the pickup address.
I briefly granted him access, before flipping the switch to “Never”. This allows me to manually enter a pickup address and continue using the app. However, every few days the app showing me the blank world map and temporarily granting it access to my location would solve the problem. I also realized that I was no longer able to access the app settings. A giant pop-up window asking you to grant location access or enter pickup address greets you when you open the app. This means you can’t change payment info, check previous rides, or rate drivers from the Uber app if you don’t grant it access to your location, even if you’re not looking to book a taxi.
Some of these options appear during your trip but not before or after. Even the basics like checking your Uber rating or contacting Uber support aren’t accessible if you don’t want Uber accessing your location all the time. Even if you don’t care about third parties knowing where you are at all times, you’re probably worried that such movement will reduce your phone’s battery life.
Uber’s whole premise is convenience. The app makes it much more convenient to order a taxi and reach your destination. This latest update is a step in the wrong direction. The company could have easily made it an opt-in process and asked people to help improve pickup and drop-off data by allowing access to their location at any time. Forcing this change on people, and rendering the app unusable if they don’t, is the wrong way to go.