Uber's Secret "Greyball" Program Allegedly Targeted Law-Enforcement Officials

Mar 08, 2017, 00:05
Uber's Secret

The ride-hailing service Uber is now ubiquitous throughout the city of Portland, but back in 2014 it was operating illegally and somehow skirting city officials trying to crack down on the company.

Greyballing's use has definitely grown beyond that, however.

When a user was "Greyballed", the Times says, Uber could show a set of fake cars on the app's map - or no cars at all. In a statement to the Times, Uber said Greyball was used to deny ride requests "to 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 "stings" meant to entrap drivers".

Uber maintains that this program is intended mostly for the protection of its drivers, from code enforcers working in concert with taxi interests.

The New York Times revealed Greyball's existence in a story published Friday based on information provided by four current and former Uber employees who were not named. The tool has been used in cities, countries, and regions where local rules blocked or impeded Uber's service, including Portland, Boston, Las Vegas, Paris, Australia, South Korea, China, and Italy.

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A spokesperson said Uber's legal department had approved the practice in locations where Uber was not overtly banned, and that Uber's terms of use required riders use the ride hailing app for personal, not commercial, reasons and to not cause "nuisance" to drivers. State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat who past year led the drafting of state regulations overseeing Uber, said the Times report "raises a lot of red flags right now about the veracity of the company".

Among other things, the company has faced lawsuits for classifying its drivers as independent contractors to save money and allegedly stealing the technology for a fleet of autonomous cars that it is now testing. Or Uber can check if a credit card used to sign up for its service is linked to a police credit union. Greyball is activated on accounts that belong to investigators: when enough "signals" were raised flagging the user as a cop, Uber enables Greyball mode for their account.

This latest report about Uber comes on top of engineer Susan Fowler's well-publicized allegations of sexual harassment, and the posting of a video showing CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with a driver over fares.

A spokeswoman for Uber confirmed that Greyball was still in use, though on a much smaller scale than it once was. Uber launched with city approval in April 2015. It also had employees conduct searches for social media profiles to confirm certain users were indeed members of local regulation enforcement teams, the report claims, in order to add them to the Greyball list.

And in Florida, Hillsborough regulators coordinated with taxi and limousine companies on an undercover operation that lured out Uber drivers so they could be assessed US$700 fines.