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Uber says it wants to be less creepy, but it’s still hard to trust them

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With a new CEO officially at the helm and a six-month PR blitz to win back drivers underway, it’s clearer than ever that Uber, which has been rocked by scandal after scandal, wants to change its image for the better.

So when Uber announced earlier this week it was rolling back a controversial feature that tracked users’ locations for five minutes after a ride, it may have seemed like a win for Uber’s friendlier “new” image.

Indeed, the company’s security chief, Joe Sullivan, told Reuters that it’s part of an ongoing effort to bolster user privacy dating back to when he joined Uber in 2015.

I’m not convinced just yet, though.

While the change is undoubtedly a welcome move for the privacy conscious, the timing of this particular change is suspect, to say the least. Putting aside the fact that Uber would be well-served by a bit of good PR right now, the reality is an upcoming update from Apple was going to undermine the “post-trip” tracking feature anyway.

 

With iOS 11, which is due out next month, Apple is taking it upon themselves to get developers to be less shady with how they use location services. As part of that, Apple will no longer allow developers to force users to choose between “always” and “never” when it comes to an app’s use of location services, as Uber started doing last fall when it introduced the controversial feature.

This feature was already poised to become obsolete

Instead, Apple will automatically bring back the “while using the app” choice, which prevents Uber’s post-trip tracking from working anyway.

So while Uber can cash in on all the good PR it wants by saying it cares about privacy, the fact remains that this feature was already poised to become obsolete as soon as users started updating their phones.

When reached for comment, an Uber spokesperson reiterated Sullivan’s earlier comments, and said they would remove the post-trip location tracking from older versions of the app and on Android, not just the iOS 11 build.

We made a mistake last fall by asking for more information from riders without making clear what value we would offer in return. If we decide to ask for more location data in the future, we’ll explain what the value is and give riders the choice to opt-in. The changes announced this week are as much about future commitments and expectations as immediate product updates.

Apple doesn’t require us to remove post-trip location and we’re reintroducing “while using” to older versions of the iOS app, not just iOS 11. We’re working on Android next.

Again, walking back the feature is a good thing, even if the reason itself is somewhat shady. But by waiting nearly 10 months to change a feature that clearly made so many users deeply uncomfortable, and only doing so weeks before Apple’s iOS updates would essentially force their hand on the issue anyway, it doesn’t really inspire that much confidence in the company’s supposed commitment to privacy — particularly when their chief security officer says he’s been focused on the issue for two years.

So, yes, perhaps Uber really is turning over a new leaf, but it’s going to have a to do a lot better than this to win back people’s trust.

Mobiles

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