Are Uber's New Privacy Changes Creepy Or Necessary?

Photo: Courtesy Uber.
Following in the footsteps of Google and Facebook, Uber is updating its privacy policies so they're easier to understand for those of us who didn't go to law school. But, there's one update to the terms that has everyone buzzing: The ride-hailing service is going to start tracking users' exact locations all the time, whether you're using the app or it's just running in the background.

The change is potentially useful: It would eliminate the back-and-forth "Do you see me? I'm on the corner by Jack's Market" situation when you and your Uber driver are trying to make contact. This could also shave a few seconds off of how long it takes for the app to find the nearest Uber when you hail a ride. So, that's all good. But, the driver would also know exactly where you were before being picked up, which could be weird if it's a private residence, and he or she could see whether you're actually outside like you said or still finishing your Negroni at the bar when the car finally arrives.

The new terms of service also explain that Uber could start accessing and storing your address book contacts "to facilitate social interactions," such as sending special offers to your friends and family.

In both of these scenarios (location tracking and access to your contacts) you would have to give Uber permission to access that data in the app. If you decide not to give Uber permission to track your location, you can still use the app — it will just work like it does now.

According to a new survey on data sharing by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, companies like Uber think that users will gladly accept data access and tracking like this in exchange for more convenience and personalization in their services. But, in fact, customers aren't so happy with this kind of surveillance.

“What is really going on is a sense of resignation. Americans feel that they have no control over what companies do with their information or how they collect it,” Joseph Turow, a professor at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication and main author of the study told the New York Times.

And, of course, Uber has a shady track record when it comes to user privacy. Employees used the app's "God mode" feature to track a journalist's whereabouts without her permission and a since-deleted blog post detailed the hookup habits of its users. These new changes give Uber even more access to your daily comings and goings (along with all the other private stuff the app already knows about you).

The changes go into effect July 15, and you automatically agree to the policies if you use the app on or after that date. There's definitely a lot of convenience to be gained through Uber's newfound knowledge of your location, but we can't help but feel uneasy about it. Maybe it's time to switch to Lyft once and for all. Lyft does have way more lady drivers, and that's rad.

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