A report in the New York Times indicates that Uber’s app for the iPhone was once in danger of getting banned in 2015 when Apple discovered that Uber had figured out a way of identifying users by hardware ID after the deletion of the app from the device. And to prevent Apple from finding out what it was doing, Uber geofenced the headquarters of the Cupertino, California-based tech giant.
According to the report, after the violation was uncovered, the chief executive officer of Apple, Tim Cook, personally rebuked the chief executive officer of Uber, Travis Kalanick. Cook even threatened to have Uber removed from the Apple’s App store.
Uber in turn defended itself saying that the ID tags were used to prevent driver fraud. The ID tags were also designed to prevent fraudsters from hailing expensive rides and then going on to wipe the smartphone over and over. Additionally, the ID tags were also to ensure that stolen credit cards were not registered as a payment option and that the Uber app would not be installed on a stolen iPhone.
“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,” Uber said in a statement.
At the time the violation was said to have been taking place, Uber was offering its drivers bonuses that were dependent on the number of rides. But in some parts of the world like China, drivers would make use of stolen iPhones that had been digitally wiped clean to register several fake email addresses. These email addresses would then be assigned to nonexistent new riders and these accounts would go on to hail rides which the drivers would accept to increase their ride count.
To prevent such fraud, Uber developed persistent ID tags which would remain on a device even after it had been wiped clean. This ‘fingerprinting’ was a violation of Apple’s rules as it was an intrusion of user privacy. But to prevent Apple from becoming aware of the practice, Uber designed a version of its software which didn’t fingerprint and this would be shown to Apple employees when they were accessing the Uber app from their corporate headquarters, a practice known as geofencing.
Tough road ahead
The new allegation against Uber is just the latest in a line of controversies that have engulfed Uber in the recent past. Kalanick has especially been receiving bad press over his history and knack for flouting corporate norms and rules. While this has assisted the company fight off opposition from taxi unions and cities, it has resulted in negative publicity and a leadership crisis for the ride-hailing service firm.