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Uber faces controversy over plan to track user’s locations even when app isn’t running

The ride-sharing app Uber is shown Thursday, May 14, 2015.
The ride-sharing app Uber is shown Thursday, May 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

UPDATE (June 23): An Uber spokesperson contacted Global News to clarify that the app’s ability to collect location data about customers when the user’s GPS is turned off is a feature that may come into effect in the future – however, the company will not be collecting that kind of data when the new policy comes into effect on July 15.

When these changes come into effect, users will be notified and will have the ability to opt-out of location tracking features.

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TORONTO – Changes to Uber’s privacy policy, set to go into effect July 15, specify changes that could the ridesharing app to track its users’ location data even when the app isn’t running. But the company is now facing legal troubles over the changes.

The U.S.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) submitted a complaint to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission Monday, citing concerns over the new data tracking policy, first outlined by Uber in May.

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The updated privacy policy includes language that suggests the the app could collect location data about customers when the user’s GPS is turned off, or the app isn’t being used.

Uber’s new policy also outlines changes that could allow the app to access the user’s contacts, in order to send special offers to the user’s friends and family.

“This collection of users’ information far exceeds what customers expect from the transportation service,” read the complaint submitted by EPIC.

“Users would not expect the company to collect location information when customers are not actively using the app.”

However, Uber has also made it clear that users will be able to opt out of location tracking features.

EPIC argues that forcing users to opt out “places an unreasonable burden on consumers.”

“There is no basis for this complaint.  We care deeply about the privacy of our riders and driver-partners and have significantly streamlined our privacy statements in order to improve readability and transparency,” read a statement from an Uber spokesperson issued to Global News.

“These updated statements don’t reflect a shift in our practices, they more clearly lay out the data we collect today and how it is used to provide or improve our services.”

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The update to Uber’s privacy policy came after an external review of the company’s privacy statements. According to the app, the changes are meant to simplify its existing policies to make them easier to understand.

But this isn’t the first time Uber has come under fire for its tracking features.

In November, the company’s privacy practices were called into question following allegations that one of its top executives tracked a Buzzfeed reporter’s location without her permission using an internal company tool called “God View.”

The tool allows Uber employees to see the location of Uber vehicles and customers who have requested a car via the app.

In 2009, Uber customer Peter Sims said he was travelling in an Uber car in Manhattan when he received a text message from an acquaintance recounting his every move. Turns out, that person was at an Uber launch party in Chicago where Sims’ location was being shown on a screen via “God View.”

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