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How Uber knows your phone battery is dying and more

Uber can tell when your phone battery is dying and how that correlates to acceptance of surge pricing. But the company's data collection policy worries privacy rights groups. 

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    An Uber decal is displayed in the their window of the car owned by Steve Linnes, a music teacher in State College, Pa., who is also a part-time Uber driver (Feb. 25, 2016). Uber has revealed that it can tell when users' iPhones are low on battery.
    Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times via AP/File
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The deciding factor between a potential user hailing an Uber during peak hours and deciding to wait for fares to die down? The charge left on their smartphone.

The surprising correlation was revealed by chief economic researcher at Uber Keith Chen in an interview with NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast. Users are much more likely to accept surge pricing when their phones are close to dying, versus users with a full charge.

Dr. Chen talked about the massive amont of data the ride-hailing service collects about users. So much so that, he says, the service takes precautions to use it ethically. For example, Uber may know about the low-battery link to surge pricing, but it doesn’t utilize it to charge a premium.

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“And we absolutely don't use that to kind of like push you a higher surge price, but it's an interesting kind of psychological fact of human behavior,” Chen said in the interview.

But promises of ethical and legitimate use has not dissuaded critics who say Uber’s data collection policies go far beyond basic data.

The host of Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam, outlined the potential ubiquitous knowledge of users’ lives granted to Uber by the nature of the data they collect:

I mean, there have been reports for example of, you know, so Uber broadly knows where I live and where I work because I'm often taking cabs back and forth between those two locations. But let's say one day I leave work, and instead of going home I go to another location, which is known to be the address of a bar.

And then a few hours later I go to another location, which is not my home address.

And then I come to work the next morning, you know, you can draw the conclusion of what I was doing that evening. And it feels like you actually know more about people's lives than perhaps they realize they are letting you know.

Chen agreed with the sentiment, but reassured that the company did have a range of procedures in place to limit the intrusiveness of data collection or at least how Uber uses the data it collects. The company has a privacy officer and employees are directed on what can be ethically queried.

“We do have access to a tremendous amount of data,” Chen said. “We have to take very seriously this responsibility that we're becoming a big part of how people move around the world. And we just want to be very careful with that.”

Most research using collected data is also based on a large, broad swath of aggregates that wouldn’t single out users or individuals.

Presumably, Uber knows when a user’s smartphone is low on charge because it collects the data to tell its app when to enter into power-saving mode, according to Mashable. The link between the battery charge and a customer's acceptance of surge pricing, a controversial feature of Uber that results in higher costs in peak areas and hours, was found accidentally by a data scientist working at the ride-hailing service.

The company also uses the data to identify things like how negatively customers react to surge pricing. When surge pricing first started being implemented and prices at certain times raised to 1.2X, people requesting Ubers during that time dropped 27 percent. But now that customers are more familiar with the service, the drop is closer to seven percent, Chen in the NPR interview.

In the past, however, data collected by the company has been used for more questionable activities. The company investigated its top New York executive in 2014 after a Buzzfeed News story revealed he had used an internal tool to track the movements of a Buzzfeed reporter. The company tool called “God View,” allows anyone using it to track the location of Uber vehicles and customers who requested them.

In 2015, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a leader privacy rights group, requested the Federal Trade Commission restrict additional changes to Uber’s data collection policy that would allow even more data to be collected.

The group said in the complaint, the changes “threaten the privacy rights and personal safety of American consumers, ignore past bad practices of the company involving the misuse of location data, pose a direct risk of consumer harm, and constitute an unfair and deceptive trade practice subject to investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.”

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