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Should Your Uber Driver Know Exactly Where You Are? They Could Soon

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“Where are you? I’m outside. Do you see me? Where should I meet you?” These kinds of frustrating calls with your Uber driver could be a thing of the past. Today Uber updated its privacy policy, saying it will now ask to pull people’s exact location while the app is running in the foreground or background.

You’ll have to decide whether that’s helpful or creepy.

Previously, Uber’s drivers could only see where the car was and where you dropped a pickup pin. The rider’s app would send Uber’s databases their location at certain times when they had the app open on their screen. But these intermittent, unpredictable bursts of location data aren’t nearly as fruitful. Now it can pull your current GPS location even after you’ve put away your phone or switched to another app unless you opt out.

Sure, it’s a little weird letting a strange driver know exactly where you are, possibly inside your own home. If they go nuts they could come find you. And Uber has a bit of a shaky reputation, given talk of the company smearing journalists that criticize it, tracking users by name with God View, and its CEO Travis Kalanick’s notoriously ruthless strategy. Drivers knowing when you tell a little white lie that “I’m on my way outside” when you’re actually still stationary inside your building might make things awkward.

But giving Uber your current coordinates could also save you time and money.

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 2.47.36 PM
Pulling location data could eliminate this loading screen
Initially, Uber tells me it plans to use precise location data from your GPS to pre-fetch info on where the closest cars are to you, rather than it taking a few seconds to load based on where your pin is set. That could get rid of this loading screen to the right. Not a game-changer, but obviously Uber wants to shave time off whenever it can.

Uber confirms to me its app will still be usable if you refuse to share your exact location, similar to how it works now.

But the real opportunity would be if Uber gave your location to your driver when they’re coming to pick you up. They could tell if you’re just down the block from your requested pickup address and they should roll up to you. That could save you from wandering around in traffic trying to find them,having to walk a half-block frantically waving at your driver, or getting cancelled on because you couldn’t find them quickly enough.

shutterstock_70537582There are surely more optimizations Uber could do with precise location data. It could learn where the doors to buildings are by watching the route dots take on their way outside so it knows where drivers should pull up. Even if people haven’t requested rides yet, Uber could know that a bunch of its users are clustered at a location, like a concert, and divert more cars to wait nearby for when everyone floods out. There’s even the potential to use the data to fight fraud.

This is only the latest instance where we have to pick privacy or convenience.

It’s easy to confuse less privacy with less safety, and jump to worst-case scenarios. But we should all think calmly about whether giving Uber our location actually puts us more at risk. Ten years ago, the idea of our phones even having GPS might have sounded scary.

[Image Credit: Memo Angeles – Shutterstock]

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