Apple CEO Tim Cook reportedly threatened to have Uber's iPhone app pulled from the App Store in 2015 after learning that the ride-hailing firm had secretly been identifying and tagging iPhones even after its app was deleted from the phone. According to the New York Times, Cook apparently pulled up CEO Travis Kalanick over the scheme that violated Apple's privacy rules.
"So, I've heard you've been breaking some of our rules," Cook reportedly told Kalanick during an in-person meeting at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California. He demanded that Uber end the practice or risk being kicked off the App Store.
A person who saw Kalanick after the meeting said he looked "shaken by Mr. Cook's scolding" NYT reports.
Losing access to millions of iPhone users would be disastrous for Uber's business so Kalanick conceded and put an end to the practice.
The Times reports the practice began in 2014 when Uber was tackling widespread account fraud in markets like China where people were buying stolen, erased iPhones and then create multiple fake email addresses and Uber rider accounts. They would then request rides via these accounts, accept these rides and cash in on Uber's incentives for drivers to take more rides, earning them more money.
To address the fraudulent activity, Uber used a practice called "fingerprinting" by adding a piece of code to let them identify an iPhone and keep tabs on it even after the app is deleted or the phone is wiped.
The firm also used a technique called "geofencing" to cover their tracks and evade detection by Apple. Kalanick apparently asked his engineers to "geofence" Apple's headquarters and "obfuscate its code from people within that geofenced area, essentially drawing a digital lass around those it wanted to keep in the dark."
Apple engineers outside of the firm's headquarters, however, soon found out about Apple's ruse.
"We absolutely do not track individual users or their location if they've deleted the app," an Uber spokesperson said to multiple media outlets. "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 has been having a rocky year thus far with a long litany of controversies over the past few months. The company is currently investigating allegations over sexual harassment, sexism and a toxic work culture.
A damaging #DeleteUber campaign resurfaced following the sexual harassment claims after it first went viral in January when Uber was accused of strike-breaking a protest against President Trump's immigration order.
Alphabet's Waymo slapped the company with a lawsuit alleging theft of its self-driving car technology. An embarassing video also emerged showing Kalanick yelling at an Uber driver over falling fares. He later apologised and admitted he needed to "grow up" and "get leadership help".
Uber admitted to using a secret "Greyball" tool to deceive law enforcement in markets where the company faced restrictions. It later vowed to stop using the software for that purpose. In January, Uber agreed to pay a $20,000 fine and adopt more stringent privacy and security practices following a 14-month investigation into its "God View" tool to track riders.
The company also allegedly used a tool called Hell to secretly track and monitor drivers of rival ride-hailing company Lyft. Uber was also accused of shortchanging both its drivers and customers in the US.
Amid the whirlwind of PR crises, a slew of executive departures have continued to plague Uber. Meanwhile, Uber is looking for a new chief operating officer to help Kalanick run the troubled company.