Uber’s chief executive was summoned by Tim Cook, the head of Apple, and told that the taxi-hailing business would be blocked by the App Store if it did not stop flouting privacy rules.
The dressing down took place two years ago, but the details emerged only at the weekend after sources spoke to The New York Times.
They said that Mr Cook had told Travis Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder and chief executive — dressed, apparently, in his trademark red trainers and pink socks — to stop “fingerprinting” users’ handsets without their knowledge.
Apple had discovered that Uber was covertly tagging people’s phones in a way that meant the company could still identify them even if the customer had deleted the app. Denial of access to millions of iPhone customers would have destroyed Uber’s business, so Mr Kalanick acceded to Apple’s demands.
Uber said that the tagging, which is permitted by Google’s Android platform, was intended to prevent fraud, where people load Uber on to stolen phones or take expensive rides and then delete the app. It did not enable Uber to track former customers’ movements, but would alert the company if known miscreants signed up again.
Nevertheless, the technology violates Apple’s privacy rules, which state that if a customer deletes an app, the provider’s presence should be wiped from their handset. Uber was aware of the rules, but the newspaper’s sources said that Mr Kalanick had told engineers to “geo-fence” Apple HQ so that people reviewing Uber’s software from that specific location would be unable to see the fingerprinting.
This did not work because engineers outside Apple’s head office in Cupertino, California, cottoned on to the company’s deception.
Uber has been accused repeatedly of breaking the rules. Three years ago it was caught using its so-called god technology to track customers’ movements in real time without their consent. It insisted that it had robust policies to prohibit staff from accessing journey data, but former employees claimed recently that staff continued to track celebrities and personal acquaintances, including former partners. Uber denies the allegations.
This month it was reported that Uber had created a secret software system called “Hell” to track drivers from Lyft, a rival cab-hailing service, so that it could deploy extra drivers in the areas in which they operated. The Hell software was allegedly also used to poach drivers from Lyft. Uber declined to comment on the reports.
The company has also been accused of operating a “macho” work culture, an image compounded in February when secretly filmed footage of Mr Kalanick shouting at an Uber driver was leaked online. He now has a private driver.