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Consumer Group Wants FTC Investigation Over Uber Tracking

WASHINGTON – A consumer advocacy group has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether rideshare company Uber improperly tracked iPhone users after they had deleted the company’s application.

Consumer Watchdog in a complaint filed Thursday with the FTC accused Uber of “flagrantly unfair and deceptive practices” in 2015. The filing cites a recent New York Times profile on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, describing how the company violated Apple’s privacy rules by secretly tracking iPhones that no longer carried the Uber app. According to NYT, Apple CEO Tim Cook confronted Kalanick about the practice in early 2015 and threatened to pull the Uber application from Apple’s App Store.

“I think there’s definite wrongdoing here on the part of Uber, and I’m hopeful that the FTC will hold them accountable,” Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project director John M. Simpson told PJ Media on Thursday.

Uber said in a statement Friday that the company “absolutely” does not track individual users or their locations once the app has been deleted. Company spokeswoman Melanie Ensign in email Friday said that the practice only impacted drivers who were flagged for fraudulent behavior. She noted that persistent tracking can help prevent impostors from loading Uber onto stolen phones and cashing in on Uber rides using stolen credit card information.

Ensign also noted that the allegations came to light in early 2015, before Uber hired its first chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, and centralized company security functions into a single organization.

“Under that leadership, our team has grown to hundreds of security engineers and analysts, and our anti-fraud practices are fully compliant with Apple’s policy,” Ensign wrote.

FTC spokeswoman Juliana Gruenwald Henderson confirmed Friday that the commission has received Consumer Watchdog’s complaint. She declined to comment further, as FTC investigations are not public and the commission does not “comment on an investigation or the existence of an investigation.” It’s unclear whether the complaint will lead to a formal investigation.

Consumer Watchdog’s complaint described Uber as a renegade rideshare company that prides itself on a rule-breaking approach to business. Simpson said the company has repeatedly ignored local regulations when entering new markets to expand its rideshare business. He pointed to a controversy last year involving automated-car testing in California, where Uber failed to apply for proper permitting. According to CNN, Uber was ordered to stop the testing and then relocated to Arizona, which lacks self-driving regulations.

“They just have a history of not following the rules and flouting it,” Simpson said.

Consumer Watchdog alleges that Uber went to great lengths to hide its tracking practices from Apple, allegedly geo-fencing, or digitally blocking, Apple’s headquarters from detecting the practice. According to the group, Apple engineers outside of headquarters discovered the practice.

“Even if Uber has complied with Apple’s request, the Commission must act to enjoin Uber

from this deceitful tracking and similar deceptive activities,” the complaint reads. “It is important that the Commission take a position to block this unfair and deceptive activity, for based on the company’s record it is likely to engage in the activity again.”

The group asks that the FTC also investigate Uber’s practices with Android devices, as well as carefully review the Uber app’s privacy policy to determine whether it is in step with current Uber activities.