Web companies can track you -- and price-gouge you -- based on your battery life

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2016/08/06/web-companies-can-track-you.html


Just because people are willing to pay a higher price doesn’t mean you should ask them to.


In all likelihood, the company would never be able to live with itself all the way to the bank.


Sarcasm will open many doors in life. Indeed.


Maybe it’s just me but I am absolutely obsessed about battery life. I start to freak out when any of my mobile devices go below 50% so I am very conscience about keeping everything charged up at all times. I have various chargers in every room and both cars and I never go anywhere without making sure my phone is topped up. I also carry spare battery packs just in case. It’s my Boy Scout heritage I think. I’m usually very laid back about other things but batteries are my OCD thing.

I wonder if I’m the type of person who would be susceptible to this kind of nefarious pricing model but I don’t think so. I doubt I would allow myself to get in this position in the first place.


“Keith Chen, Uber’s head of economic research, told NPR in May that people are more willing to pay higher fares for rides when their batteries are nearly drained – but Chen also said the company doesn’t take that information into account when setting prices.”

But, Uber will charge you more for a ride to the ariport when they previously said it would be a normal charge, citing (non-existent) “traffic” as the reason. Once you are your on way to the airport, and they jack up the price, your options are very slim indeed and Uber knows that.


Wait, Uber changes the price once you are in the car? I haven’t used it, but I thought the only real advantage to their service was that the fare was agreed on before hand. If it doesn’t do that they are just a taxi service that refuses to serve people with disabilities.



I bet that individuals are also willing to pay more for clean water when their homes have been destroyed by natural disasters and for medicines that treat diseases they already have.

I think Uber may be on to something.


It’s not just you. Whatever devices I’m bringing with me (MP3 player, phone, tablet) are at 100% before I leave the house, my phone has a case with a built-in battery, and if I’m on the road I pack at least one external battery, too. Batteries are so cheap and so tiny these days, I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t carry one: there’s no excuse for a dead battery any more, at all.

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The more obvious thing would be to sniff user-agents and charge IE users a higher price, for all the reasons you can imagine, and just because.


I posted this on Reddit the other day as a lot of people don’t know how to get into this:

In Firefox, pull up about:Config (Literally just type that into the URL bar)-- do a search on Battery and turn
it to false. On Safari under the Mac and on iDevices, this API isn’t
even enabled: navigator.getBattery is not a function. (In ‘navigator.getBattery()’, ‘navigator.getBattery’ is undefined)

From here, check to see if it worked from this: https://www.w3.org/TR/battery-status/

Apple users on Safari…any platform? You have nothing to worry about.

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You like to deal from strength

And yet people tell me earnestly that not rooting my device would be more secure than me managing access to it. These companies are exploitive and betray the trust of the user at every turn.


Hard to see how this could be used to actually track anyone, unless the author simply doesn’t know the meaning of the word. At any one time, there are millions of other people with the same battery level as you. Hardly a unique identifier.

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Lithium battery life is basically a number of full charges, which with modern phones with fixed batteries means that longer battery life equates to longer device life. But also, only allowing the battery to discharge within limits should increase its overall life - because the less the internal chemistry changes between charges, the less should be the degradation (this doesn’t work for old NiCds which have a memory effect).
My primary phone has minimal services enabled and it usually runs down to around 70-80% by end of day and recharge time.
So your battery OCD is probably prolonging the life of devices, which is good. And now it may be stiffing it to sociopathic companies like Uber, which is even better.

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I think it’s track as in follow - they can follow your usage pattern.
One can all too easily imagine a company like Uber looking for phones of people in “bad” areas of town and watching the rate of battery fall, working out who they can prioritise to charge the most to as they realise they need a car and the battery is nearly flat. Or even predicting - this person is known to live at so-and-so, they are in X, in about half an hour they are going to realise the battery is nearly flat. The next thing is they will be auctioning drivers for who will pay the most to be closest to the mark when they need a cab.
This is usually how intermediation (the word used to be entrepreneurs but it has been devalued) companies try to make money; you take from both sides due to your asymmetric information. I expect more of this before eventually governments step in, because the 2008 crisis was basically caused by banks stiffing both buyers and sellers (they identified that pension funds and local government would pay a premium to acquire high value real estate debt, so they encouraged an unsustainable building boom raising prices and increasing indebtedness, then concealed the false risk valuations and sold higher risk debt as being low risk. And the lesson learnt from it was, if you do it big enough the risk is socialised. Uber is stiffing drivers by underpaying them (because they don’t understand the true costs of operating a taxi) and stiffing the buyers because they control the prices and the buyers want transport. It is basically the same as the mortgage selling scheme.)


Alright, it’s probably time to introduce an accessible way to disable app permissions to poll the mobile OS battery status in official distros of iOS and Android…

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That’s not “tracking you based on your battery life”. Tracking mean the ability to trace your movements around the web. You looked at something on Overstock.com after having looked at a similar item on Amazon. There’s no way battery usage is helpful in that. It’s a misuse of the term.

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I’m totally happy-go-lucky, since my THL5000 has five amp-hours.

I’m similarly obsessed about battery life, but also for another reason - I know my usage pattern well enough (mostly podcasts, audio takes very little power), and if the battery drops below 50 %, it’s a sure sign that some crappy app is leeching power at an ungodly rate.