Very soon, the drivers of China’s two biggest food delivery app operators won’t be able to see the phone numbers of customers who placed orders.

It’s part of Meituan Dianping and Ele.me’s separate efforts to improve user data privacy. Now delivery drivers are only shown proxy phone numbers generated by telecoms carriers, can only contact customers through the apps’ messaging function, and the addresses of customers are hidden after orders are completed.

More than 322 million mobile subscribers in China are users of mobile food delivery apps. (Picture: Agence France-Presse)

The two service providers say the new campaigns will start this June. And Meituan Dianping says it will spend 100 million yuan (US$15 million) to promote its phone number protection system.

Those initiatives followed a report last month by the Beijing News, which found that stolen personal data from people who ordered meals online were being sold in the black market for as little as 800 yuan (US$125) for every 10,000 profiles.

The report said tens of thousands of stolen names, phone numbers and home addresses were bought by marketing firms. Some users on microblog site Sina Weibo have also complained that they were harassed by delivery drivers via phone calls or text messages.

Food delivery apps are hugely popular in China, offering cheap and fast services. More than 322 million mobile subscribers use them -- that’s almost one in every four people in the country.

While Meituan Dianping and Ele.me said their “phone number protection” tools have been available since last year, state media Xinhua pointed out in an editorial two days ago that users had to manually turn on the function, which most people don’t do.

The news report, which cited an unnamed industry insider, said the two apps did not automatically enable the function because switching to internet calls would significantly increase costs for the two companies.