Once considered a darling and pioneer of the still nascent ride-hailing industry, Uber has quickly become the villain of a still ongoing drarma. It’s the typical story of a successful company willing to do anything and everything to stay that the top, even when that means breaking the rules. And break the rules Uber did, according to this new report. Uber has allegedly been “fingerprinting” iPhones, identifying them even after they have been fully erased. It was a gross violation of Apple’s privacy policies and a practice that went on for almost a year until Apple CEO Tim Cook put a stop to it.
Uber’s reasons for breaking those rules might almost be understandable. Almost. Back in 2014, the already dominant ride-hailing service was facing not just competition in China, it was also facing fraud. 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.
Fingerprinting a device means identifying it as something unique, like an unchanging serial number. The difference is that identification isn’t physical but digital. 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. And that happens even after the iPhone has been wiped clean of any data.
As any court room TV drama would tell you, covering up one’s tracks is a sure sign of knowledge and guilt. Knowing that this feature would never make it pass Apple’s scrutiny, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick supposedly instructed software engineers to identify users who are likely to be reviewing the app for Apple. The app would then hide the code responsible for fingerprinting and, thus, make it pass the review process. In other words, Kalanick knowingly and actively tried to fool Apple
That worked for almost a year but Cupertino eventually got wind of it, and Cook was none too happy. The Apple CEO called for a meeting with Uber’s top exec, and Kalanck knew fully well what the meeting would be about. Cook’s mandate was clear, succinct, and powerful. Stop the trickery or Uber will never be on any iPhone again. Kalanick could risk losing China (which it eventually did), but not the millions of iPhone-using cash cows.
Uber survived that meeting by playing by the rules, but it apparently didn’t learn its lesson. Although it closed that chapter of its history, other pages are still open and accusations are still flying. This might be one instance where Uber won’t survive unscathed, if it survives at all.
SOURCE: New York Times