What should one make of a company whose CEO doesn't use its product? In a recent article about ride-hailing app Uber, the New York Times reported that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has a private driver in lieu of using the transportation app he created. Though it has little to do with Uber's service and more to do with Kalanick. In February, an Uber driver leaked footage of his interaction with Kalanick in which they get into a shouting argument over Uber's falling prices.
The Times also brought to light a practice the app allegedly used to engage in: Uber used a secret "fingerprint" code to tag iPhones after users deleted the app. Uber's intention was to prevent fraud — new drivers in China were deleting and re-downloading the app with unique email IDs to take advantage of incentives offered to new drivers.
But by doing this, Uber was consciously breaking Apple's privacy guidelines that ensure an owner's identity could not be linked back to a device after an app has been deleted. To covertly continue using the code, Kalanick reportedly asked his engineers to "geofence" Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California, so that individuals reviewing Uber's software would be unable to identify the code. Apple's engineers outside of Cupertino figured it out and Kalanick eventually got caught, met with Apple CEO Tim Cook and had to ultimately abide by the privacy rules.
Uber told Mic that the company does not track their users or their location once the app is deleted. Instead, the method is used to fight off fraudulent activity.
"We absolutely do not track individual users or their location if they've deleted the app," an Uber spokesperson told Mic. "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.
"Similar techniques are also used for detecting and blocking suspicious logins to protect our users' accounts. Being able to recognize known bad actors when they try to get back onto our network is an important security measure for both Uber and our users."
Uber's bad year
Last year, Uber had an adjusted net loss of $2.8 billion, according to the Times, and has seen declines in its in-house "driver satisfaction rating" metric. In December, Uber had to halt its self-driving car program in San Francisco after the California Department of Motor Vehicles revoked the registrations of 16 test vehicles after Uber dismissed the DMV's warnings about getting a permit for four months.
The company's bad streak did not end in 2016, as controversy trickled into 2017 in more ways than the aforementioned leaked video of Kalanick.
More than 200,000 registered Uber users deleted their accounts at the start of the year in the unofficial #DeleteUber movement after Uber was accused of undermining a New York tax union strike. Protesters united at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (and airports around the country) to rally against President Donald Trump's executive order banning Syrian refugees and preventing immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days.
Uber responded by suspending surge pricing (a feature that increases transportation rates when there is high demand in a given area) at JFK during the time of the protest — a move that was viewed as way for the company to undercut the protest and profit off the strike. Uber later set up a $3 million legal defense fund for drivers.
Adding to the surge pricing debacle, Kalanick was originally one of the 19 executives part of Trump's business advisory council, much to the dismay of liberal consumers, left-leaning employees and the company's immigrant drivers. On Feb. 2, Kalanick resigned from the role citing Trump's executive order as the reason. Prior to dropping out, he had defended his working relationship with Trump.
Later in February, in a blog post, a former Uber software engineer made allegations of sexual harassment. According to Susan Fowler, her manager propositioned her for sex and she took the matter to human resources, where a rep told her the manager would not be reprimanded since he was a "high performer." Kalanick has called Fowler's allegations "abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in." But the initial claim led more women to speak up about harassment at the company and Uber has launched an internal investigation into the matter. A final report is slated to come out in May.
Recently, Uber got tangled in a lawsuit with Waymo, Alphabet's autonomous car company. The lawsuit claims former Waymo employee Anthony Levandowski downloaded 14,000 "highly confidential" files onto an external hard drive. According to the lawsuit, Otto — a self-driving trucking company acquired by Uber — stole Waymo's design for a laser-based radar system. Uber has called the allegation "baseless."
Regardless of whether opting for a private driver was a lifestyle choice by Kalanick or a way to prevent similar PR nightmares, it is telling of Uber's current status: The company is drowning in controversial issues over its questionable practices.