Uber's Kalanick got caught for tricking Apple, risking expulsion from Apple Store, report says

Elizabeth Weise
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Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

SAN FRANCISCO — Uber placed a digital wall around Apple's headquarters in an effort to hide the fact it was breaking Apple rules by marking iPhones with persistent digital ID tags that would remain after users had deleted the Uber app and wiped the phone, the New York Times reported Sunday.

The actions — first, digital fingerprinting users' devices  and then, geofencing Apple's headquarters to veil the company's actions — earned Uber CEO Travis Kalanick an in-person rebuke from Apple CEO Tim Cook, who threatened to kick Uber out of the powerful Apple App store.

Asked for comment, Uber said that it does not track individual users or their location if they have deleted the Uber app. It said that the persistent ID tags protected against driver fraud and allowed it to keep fraudsters from loading the Uber app onto a stolen phone, putting in a stolen credit card, taking an expensive ride and then wiping the phone again and again.

The company did not respond to the Times' allegation that it has attempted to hide its use from Apple.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday evening.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick showing off his backhand.

The allegation is one of several in a piece that outlines Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's long history of flouting rules and corporate norms — a legacy that helped it overcome myriad opposition from cities and taxi unions but that has forced it into a leadership crisis that threatens Kalanick's job.

The Apple issue came about in 2014 and early 2015. According to the paper, Uber was fighting fraud worldwide at a time when it offered bonuses to drivers if they did more rides. In China and elsewhere, drivers would use stolen iPhones that had had their information digitally wiped to create dozens of fake email addresses for false, new riders, who would then request rides. The drivers accepted, increasing their ride count.

In an effort to thwart such deceits, Uber created persistent ID tags on iPhones so that each could be identified even if the phone's information was wiped.

This ran afoul of Apple rules that prohibit such "fingerprinting" of phones, meant to preserve customer privacy when phones change hands.

To keep Apple from discovering what it was doing, Uber engineers created a faked version of its computer code, without the fingerprinting, which would automatically be shown to anyone who looked at it from the physical location of Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., using a technology called geofencing.

According to the story, Apple engineers elsewhere saw the fingerprinting and figured out what was happening. Apple's Cook called Kalanick into his office in early 2015 to lay down the law — stop the fingerprinting or Apple would remove the Uber app from its App Store.

Kalanick acquiesced, aware that if Uber lost access to iPhones it would lose millions of customers, the Times reported.

The incident is somewhat reminiscent of another code slight-of-hand Uber used in 2014 to hide its activities from government officials in cities where it was prohibited.

As reported by the Times, the Greyball program identified authorities in areas where the service hadn't been approved so what when they attempted to hail a ride on Uber (and thus provide fodder for enforcement actions) they were instead shown a false version of the app filled with fake cars that never came to pick them up.

Uber has said it will no longer use that program to thwart local regulators.

The company also used a variety of questionable ploys to wrest drivers and customers from smaller rival Lyft. For example, Uber employees ordered and canceled Lyft rides "en masse" to frustrate Lyft drivers, the article said.  Other Uber employees took Lyft rides and spent the duration of the ride trying to talk the drivers to switch to driving for Uber.

Uber and its CEO  have faced increasing scrutiny in the past months as employees have accused it of fostering a winner-take-all culture that allowed sexual harassment by high-performers and contributed to a toxic work culture. It's also facing a suit by Google accusing an Uber engineer of stealing 14,000 files covering self-driving car technology.


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