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Investigate Uber for phone tracking, consumer group tells FTC

Consumer Watchdog asks the Federal Trade Commission to check out claims that Uber tracked users' iPhones even after they'd deleted the app.

travis-kalanick-uber-dreamforce-2015-3634.jpg

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco in 2015. A consumer advocacy group filed a complaint against Uber to the FTC on Thursday.

James Martin/CNET

Did Uber break the law by collecting information on users' iPhones to identify the devices even after people had deleted the Uber app? That's what a consumer advocacy group asked the US Federal Trade Commission to find out in a complaint sent Thursday (PDF).

Consumer Watchdog told the FTC in its complaint that this kind of tracking violates federal privacy law. Also, Uber is due for an investigation, the group wrote.

"It is a renegade technology and transportation company whose executives pride themselves on a disruptive, rule-breaking approach to business," the Consumer Watchdog complaint says. "It is long past time for the company and its CEO Travis Kalanick to be held accountable for their actions which regularly flout the law."

The complaint comes in the wake of a New York Times report from Sunday, which claimed Uber tracked users' iPhones even after the ride-hailing service's app had been removed from the gadgets. Asked to comment on the complaint, Uber pointed to its statement in response to the Times story. In that statement, Uber said that iPhone fingerprinting doesn't let the company keep tabs on people who uninstall its app.

"We absolutely do not track individual users or their location if they've deleted the app," the statement says. "As the New York Times story notes towards the very end, this is a typical way to prevent fraudsters from loading Uber onto a stolen phone, putting in a stolen credit card, taking an expensive ride and then wiping the phone -- over and over again."

Cybersecurity experts said that in reality, Uber would have been accessing the iPhone's Universal Device ID, a practice that Apple has told developers is forbidden. If a user deleted the Uber app and then reinstalled it, Uber would have been able to know it was the same iPhone.

According to the Times report, Apple CEO Tim Cook summoned Kalanick to Apple headquarters to tell him Apple would remove the Uber app from its App Store unless the ride-hailing company stopped this practice.