Many company platforms and apps include an impersonation feature which allows administrative users to access accounts as though they were logged in as the users themselves.
Imagine knowing that by simply having an account with a company, you are unknowingly granting access to this company’s everyday employees to access your data in just the same way that you would, had you logged in with your username and password. Such is, or has been the case with many companies that we all use on a regular basis. The truth is that there are “user impersonation” tools built into the software of many tech companies like Facebook and Twitter, which not only allow employees to access your account as though they have logged in as you, but also this could be happening without your knowledge. The account holder, or user is typically not notified when this happens, nor is their consent needed in order for this to happen. According to a recent article on OneZero, “…these tools are generally accepted by engineers as common practice and rarely disclosed to users.” The problem is that these tools can be, and have been misused by employees to access users’ private information and even track the whereabouts of users of these companies’ platforms.
The Fiasco Surrounding Uber’s “God mode” Impersonation Feature.
In recent years, the popular transport company, Uber has come under fire for its privacy policies, and in particular, its questionable impersonation features, known as “God mode”. Using the feature, the company’s employees were able to track the whereabouts of any user. Uber employees were said to have been tracking the movements of all sorts of users from famous politicians to their own personal relations. After being called to task by US lawmakers, the company apologized for the misuse of this feature by some of its executives and stated that it’s policies have since been updated to avoid this issue in the future. Uber is not unique to this sort of privacy breach. Lyft is also known to have comparable tools, along with several other companies.
Impersonation Features Form Part of Most Popular Programming Tools.
Impersonation Feature use is much more widespread than just a few known companies. Popular programming languages like Ruby on Rails and Laravel offer this feature, which has been downloaded several million times. The impersonation tools offered by these services do not usually require users’ permission, nor do they notify users that their account has been accessed. It is pretty common for developers to simply white list users with administrator access giving them access to impersonator mode, thereby allowing them to access any account as though they were logged in as that user.
How Impersonation Features Can Be Made Safer.
Some companies have made changes to their policies and procedures in order to make impersonation features safer for customers. For example Uber, following their legal troubles over the ‘ God mode’ feature, have made it necessary for their employees to request access to accounts through security. Other companies have resolved to require the user to specifically invite administrators in order to grant them access.
According to Dr Bostjan Makarovic, Aphaia’s Managing Partner, “Whereas there may be legitimate reasons to view a profile through the eyes of the user to whom it belongs, such as further app development and bug repair, GDPR requires that such interests are not overridden by the individual’s privacy interests. This can only be ensured by means of an assessment that is carried out prior to such operations.”