Report: Uber used secret program to evade law enforcement

As officials in cities around the world started to crack down on Uber, upset that the startup was barging into their markets without getting permission — Uber had a secret weapon.

The program was called Greyball, and according to a New York Times investigation, Uber used it to identify code enforcement inspectors and other officials who may be conducting sting operations, and prevent them from getting a ride on the app.

Greyball launched as early as 2014 and is still used today, according to the Times report, which cited four current and former Uber employees and internal documents. Uber employed the program in cities including Paris, Boston and Las Vegas, and countries such as Australia, China, South Korea and Italy.

It’s unclear whether the tool has been used in California. The state legalized ride-hailing apps like Uber in 2013, becoming the first in the nation to adopt a framework that regulated the new type of transportation service.

Uber acknowledged the program in a statement to SiliconBeat:

“This program denies ride requests to fraudulent users who are violating our terms of service — whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘strings’ meant to entrap drivers,” a spokeswoman wrote in an email.

The revelations about Uber’s Greyball program come at the tail end of a brutal stretch for the company. In the past two weeks, a former employee has accused Uber of failing to act after she reported that her manager was sexually harassing her, a senior executive at the company was forced to resign after it was revealed he had been accused of sexual harassment while at another job, and a video went viral of CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with a driver over fares. The scandals prompted multiple apologies from Kalanick, who this week promised to “seek leadership help.” On Friday another former Uber employee spoke out against the company, claiming her manager — also a woman — made sexist comments to her.

Uber’s Greyball tool was part of a larger “violation of terms of service” program (VTOS), according to the report from The New York Times, and started partly as a way to protect Uber drivers from being targeted by angry taxi drivers.

Uber would use those tools to “Greyball” people who they identified as law enforcement officials — tagging them with a special code. They identified targets in several ways — one method was to draw a digital perimeter around authorities’ offices and then watch which people frequently opened and closed the app within those borders — potentially singling them out to be Greyballed.

Uber also looked at users’ credit card information to see if their cards were associated with a law enforcement agency, according to the Times report.

And the company looked at users’ phones. Officials engaged in sting operations sometimes bought dozens of cheap cell phones to create different accounts, so Uber reportedly went to the local electronics stores, looked up the cheapest phones, and wrote down their device numbers.

If all else failed, The Times reports, Uber employees searched users on social media to determine their identities.

If a Greyballed user tried to order a ride on the Uber app, employees would present a fake version of the app, either showing no cars available or showing cars in the wrong location. If a driver picked up the user anyway, Uber occasionally called and told the driver to end the ride.

Uber has come under fire in the past over allegations that it has invaded users’ privacy with creepy tools. Critics particularly have referenced Uber’s “God View,” a tool that lets the company spy on people’s physical locations. Uber employees reportedly have used it to entertain party guests by showing them the locations of high-profile people using the app, track a journalist, and spy on ex-romantic partners. Uber settled legal claims tied to God View last year.

Photo: Picture taken on April 24, 2014, shows the Uber app in Berlin, Germany. (AFP/DPA/Britta Pedersen/Getty Images) 




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