Why Does Uber Need to Know Your Location Even When You’re Not Using Their App?


Uber, the popular ride hailing app, recently announced changes to their privacy policy. Uber has said that they are updating their policies to make them easier to understand, and as anyone who has tried to make sense of nearly any privacy policy knows, that is a good thing. Most privacy policies are both impossibly long and nearly indecipherable.

But Uber has also made changes to what data they collect, which has raised concerns with some privacy experts. Uber will now start tracking user location all the time, not just only when you are using the app. And Uber wants access to all of your contacts as well.

Being able to track you all the time might save the app a few seconds when trying to find the nearest Uber driver, so that’s a positive. And Uber says they want access to your contacts so they can send them special deals.

But it also would allow Uber to see who you spend time with, and draw connections based on this information. It would also allow Uber drivers to see where you live or where you are coming from, which is information you may not want to share.

More ominously, it would allow Uber to track you at all times.

What Your Location Reveal About You

Many of us feel a sense of resignation when it comes to apps and free online services (like Google and Facebook) that demand access to our personal data, such as our location information, in exchange for the services they provide. Some of us may even believe this is a fair exchange. After all, how much does our location really reveal about us anyway?

But you might be surprised how much information companies can gather from you if they have access to your location data. Your mobile phone is basically a tracking device, and reveals exactly where you go every single day and how long you are there. Based on this information, companies can build a profile on you based on your habits, such as “early morning jogger” or “youth.”

Companies that track this information say that this information is not personalized, and that you can’t be directly identified by your cell phone location information alone. Which might be true, but if you have WiFi enabled on your cell phone and post to Facebook or Twitter, your identity can easily be figured out.

There’s a reason why companies want to track you: knowing where you go helps them determine how and where you spend your money. And this can help the company target ads to you, sell your information to other companies, and increase their bottom line.

You might think this is illegal, but in the U.S., companies don’t even need your consent to collect and share personal information, which includes your location data.

What You Can Do

In a recent paper entitled, “The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploitation,” lead author Joseph Turow argues that most Americans think they are getting a raw deal in exchanging personal data for discounts or free services. In his study conducted at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, over 90% of the study respondents disagreed with the following statement: “If companies give me a discount, it is a fair exchange for them to collect information about with without my knowing.”

If you don’t want your location data to be tracked by companies, there’s an easy want to stop it: simply turn off your phone, or disable WiFi on your phone.

We may feel a sense of resignation at sharing our personal information in this new digital age, but that doesn’t mean we have to give our personal information to whoever asks for it. So when Uber or any other app requests access to our location information even when they don’t need it, perhaps it’s a good idea to simply tell them to take a hike.

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Jared Howe

Jared Howe is PRIVATE WiFi’s Senior Manager, Product Marketing Communications. Working in high tech for over 15 years, Jared currently lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, and their two cats.

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