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Uber updates privacy policy, but can still track users

The ride-hailing service revises its privacy policies to be "easier to understand," but it also mentions it can access passengers' location data even when they're not actively using the app.

Uber updates its privacy policies to let users know how it's using their location data.
Uber updates its privacy policies to let users know how it's using their location data. Uber

After coming under fire for questionable privacy practices, Uber announced Thursday it's updated its privacy policies to make them simpler and "easier to understand."

Uber, which pairs drivers with passengers via a smartphone app, was blasted in the press last fall for boasting it could track a reporter without her knowledge using a feature called "God View." With the resulting backlash, the company announced it had hired a third-party data-privacy expert to review its policies and provide recommendations. And now we're seeing the results of that intervention.

The new privacy policies "explain more clearly and concisely what data Uber asks for, and how that data is used to provide or improve our services," Uber's managing counsel of data privacy, 
Katherine Tassi, wrote in a blog post Thursday. "Users will be in control: they will be able to choose whether to share the data with Uber."

Since Uber was founded in 2009, it's gone from operating just in San Francisco to being in hundreds of cities in 57 countries. With that fast growth, Uber has become the target of criticism for things like drivers allegedly assaulting passengers, the company reportedly partaking in unfair competition with rivals, and the whole God View debacle. Uber is now trying to show it's a company passengers can trust.

Uber hired well-known data privacy expert Harriet Pearson and her law firm Hogan Lovells in November. One of the firm's recommendations for Uber was to simplify its policies. So the ride-hailing company has now cut its privacy statements in half, Tassi said. Uber spells out when it needs users' location data, such as when it's connecting drivers with passengers, and when it uses riders' contact details, like when users want to split their fare with another passenger.

Tassi also mentioned that when users agree to the company's privacy policies, they consent to Uber accessing their location data even when they're not actively using the app for a ride. Also, the ride-hailing company says it may tap into users' contact lists for "promotional" offers.

"These changes would allow Uber to ask for access to a rider's location when the app is running in the background and get people on their way more quickly," Tassi wrote. "In addition, these changes would allow Uber to launch new promotional features that use contacts -- for example the ability to send special offers to riders' friends or family."

Uber's new privacy statements go into effect July 15. Users don't need to do anything to agree to the new terms. Uber says continuing to use the app "on or after" that date will show the company that they've "acknowledged and consented" to the new policies.