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Privacy Group Wants to Stop Uber's Background Data Collection

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 01, 2015 10:35 AM

Uber has had a rough go of it recently. Two weeks ago, the California Labor Commission ruled that at least one driver was an Uber employee, not the independent contractor Uber had claimed. Last week, taxi drivers in Paris, where Uber is largely illegal, staged violent protests against the company, followed quickly by the arrest of Uber executives. The latest thorn in the ride-hailing app's side? Perhaps the Federal Trade Commission.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a formal legal complaint with the FTC, alleging that Uber's updated business practices and privacy policy violate consumer's privacy. EPIC is asking the FTC to investigate Uber for unfair and deceptive trade practices and to enjoin the implementation of the company's new policy.

Uber's New Policies and EPIC's Complaint

EPIC's complaint focuses specifically on Uber's data collection. Under the company's new privacy policies, Uber will collect information, including location data, about a user when they operate the company's app. That makes sense -- after all, Uber needs to know where you are in order to send a driver your way.

But, EPIC alleges, the app will also track your location and send data while it's running in the background. For many phones, that means Uber could be tracking your location for hours after you've finished your ride. For iPhones, that means the app could track and transmit your location even when the app has been manually closed, according to EPIC.

Uber's Bad Rep on Privacy

EPIC's filing with the FTC also provides as a lengthy summary of Uber's past privacy sins. Uber has a "history of abusing the location data of its customers," EPIC says. Those violations include allowing individual employees to easily view specific user's real-time location and travel history, to publishing a blog on users who took the "Uber walk of shame," regularly using the service late night on Fridays and Saturdays.

For its part, Uber is defending its new policies. Users can limit the information they allow the company to collect, according to a company representative. It's also unclear how much EPIC's complaint will sway the FTC. The FTC almost certainly has an existing investigation into Uber open, U.C. Berkeley law lecturer and former EPIC-employee Chris Hoofnagle told Arstechnica. "The FTC loves to target the whales in the industry," he said.

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