Ride-hailing app Uber's China ambitions came to a halt in August, when the company ceded its operations in that country to rival Didi Chuxing. But one of Uber's aggressive tactics to win in China nearly cost it some very valuable real estate: a place in the Apple App Store.
In a wide-ranging profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick yesterday, New York Times writer Mike Isaac reveals Uber had been "fingerprinting" iPhones, reportedly to detect Uber drivers in markets such as China using resold devices to create new rider accounts to boost their ride numbers and incentive earnings. However, by placing code on iPhones that remained even if the devices were wiped for resale, Uber was violating Apple's privacy terms.
To prevent Apple engineers from detecting its use of such code, Uber then "geofenced" the region around the Apple's California headquarters, Isaac reported. But Apple engineers beyond that geofenced perimeter eventually spotted Uber's code, leading Apple CEO Tim Cook to call Kalanick in to his office for a face-to-face talk in early 2015.
Cook's message: Stop fingerprinting iPhones or risk having Uber kicked out of the Apple App Store. Kalanick agreed to the request.
Multiple PR Black Eyes
While it's a fast-growing global company valued at close to $70 billion, Uber has yet to turn a profit. In recent months, the firm has also been hit by one scandal after another.
In January, a "DeleteUber" campaign launched on Twitter after the company said it would suspend surge pricing for trips to and from New York City's JFK International Airport during widespread protests against President Donald Trump's executive order barring travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. New York City's taxi alliance had stopped offering airport rides to show support for travelers and protestors.
In February, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a lengthy piece on her personal blog describing a work atmosphere that was hostile to female employees and reluctant to discipline "high-performing" male employees for harassment and inappropriate behavior. Not long afterward, a video recording surfaced showed Kalanick yelling at and arguing with an Uber driver.
'Pressure To Change'
These and other Uber practices have caused "extensive" damage to the company, according to yesterday's article in the New York Times.
"Mr. Kalanick's leadership is at a precarious point," Isaac wrote. "While Uber is financed by a who's who of investors including Goldman Sachs and Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, Mr. Kalanick controls the majority of the company’s voting shares with a small handful of other close friends, and has stacked Uber's board of directors with many who are invested in his success. Yet board members have concluded that he must change his management style, and are pressuring him to do so."
However, TechCrunch reported yesterday that Uber was "pushing back on the allegations" in the New York Times piece by saying its use of fingerprinting is common among tech companies seeking to prevent fraud.
"We absolutely do not track individual users or their location if they've deleted the app," an unidentified Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch. "As the New York Times story notes towards the very end, this is a typical way to prevent fraudsters from loading Uber onto a stolen phone, putting in a stolen credit card, taking an expensive ride and then wiping the phone -- over and over again. Similar techniques are also used for detecting and blocking suspicious logins to protect our users' accounts. Being able to recognize known bad actors when they try to get back onto our network is an important security measure for both Uber and our users."
The company Slice Intelligence has also been feeling heat in the wake of yesterday's Times story, which reported that Uber had purchased anonymized passenger data about its rival Lyft gathered through Slice's email service Unroll.me.
"[I]t was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service," Unroll.me CEO and co-founder Jojo Hedaya wrote in a blog post yesterday. "We never, ever release personal data about you. All data is completely anonymous and related to purchases only."