Uber takes software users for a ride
Uber has a long history of abusing its users. The company is known for its ride sharing app, which connects drivers with riders, similarly to a taxi service. The surveillance abilities of the app are astounding.
By using "God View," employees of Uber were able to view the activity and details of cars and passengers. They would use the app to follow celebrities, "ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, and ex-spouses." In 2017, the company had an always-on tracking anti-feature, which would continually monitor the location of users -- even when the app was off.
When using the app, riders provide exact pickup and drop off addresses to drivers. Uber currently retains this information in the driver's account history. Rather than it being available for only the duration of the ride, drivers have been given continued access to the homes, destinations, and travel patterns of users. This access has led to numerous cases of assault and stalking by drivers. It was only in April 2018 that Uber announced a plan to pilot a program that would obscure exact locations in driver history.
The ability of Uber to abuse users does not end with location data. The company can monitor things like battery level: they were able to determine that "those with a low battery tend to accept the surge price because they need a ride home that minute." While Uber denies that they actually use battery life to affect surge pricing, the company has been known to lie to users about safety, security, and monitoring.
Uber's surveillance capabilities should never have been so panoptic in the first place -- a situation that could have been prevented if the app was free software. When software is free, security researchers and those looking to enhance and personalize the software can identify fundamental issues with safety and security. The app's behavior on mobile devices can be changed directly or using patches and add-ons -- like those used in a Web browser. By giving users control, they can limit the data being shared by the app. While you would not be able to control the company's servers, you would be able to control how your phone interacts with them. By having the right to modify the code, the abusive parts of the app could be removed. Redistributing modifications would provide these same benefits to other users. Free software can address the client side of the problem; then policy or public pressure can be brought to bear on how Uber uses the data on their servers.
Anyone using a proprietary third party app should be aware of what they are giving up when they allow a company access to their mobile devices: safety, security, and freedom. However, it should not be necessary to give up so much just to use mobile services. Apps need to be free, and licensing is just the first step. They need to be available on F-Droid -- the freedom respecting app marketplace -- and compatible with free operating systems. It is only through such comprehensive change that users can be free in their mobile devices.