Actual Cases

Can a deleted app keep on tracking you, even if the app is off the phone?

LOS ANGELES — Can a deleted app keep on tracking you, even if the app is off the phone?

The unsatisfying answer: Yes and no.

The app can’t follow you around and know your whereabouts. But app developers can engage in “tagging,” leaving behind a unique ID on an iPhone so the developer can recall the apps that were on it and the last Wi-Fi network the phone was logged onto. These marks are used to help a company prove that the phone belonged to an individual, says Joseph Jerome, privacy & data policy counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Can a deleted app keep on tracking you, even if the app is off the phone?
Copyright: USATODAY

The subject became hotly debated online this week in response to a New York Times profile of ride-hailing app Uber.

Uber had marked iPhones with persistent digital ID tags that would remain after users had deleted the Uber app and wiped the phone, the Times said. Apple CEO Tim Cook scolded Uber CEO Travis Kalanick for the practice, but didn’t kick Uber out of the App Store.

Today, Uber says it doesn’t track users or their location once they’ve deleted the app, but it does hold onto tagging data collected as a check against “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,” the company told USA TODAY in a statement.

Blogger John Gruber, whose Daring Fireball is targeted to app developers, noted that Apple ditched earlier iPhone tools like UDID (Unique Device ID) and Mac addresses for developers several years back (in 2012) because they were “being abused by privacy invasive ad trackers, analytics packages,” and companies like Uber

Uber notes that Apple does allows limited use of fingerprinting, and “merely stipulates which identifiers can be collected from the device, which are used by our team in combination with non-device signals to detect fraudulent activity & suspicious logins.”Would it be more than that, “tracking someone after they’ve deleted their app is problematic unless you’ve signed away your rights in the privacy policy,” notes Scott Vernick, the chair of the privacy and data security practice at Philadelphia law firm Fox Rothschild.

If app developers could truly track you after you’ve deleted the app, it would “violate Apple developer terms and show a giant security hole in,” the iOS operating system, says Jerome.

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