Uber uses 'secret program' Greyball to hide from regulators

Brittany BishopMar 08, 2017

Uber is in a particularly complex situation after several reports revealing the ride-hailing service's operation to deceive authorities.

The ride-sharing app maker produced - and, for years now, used - a software tool called Greyball that thwarts attempts by police to arrest or fine Uber drivers wherever the car-hailing service is restricted or banned from operating.

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. On the contrary, an Uber spokesperson tells MediaPost that Greyball "denies ride requests to fraudulent users who are violating our terms of service", including "opponents who collude with officials on secret "stings" meant to entrap drivers".

The story collected employee reports, documents and an interview with a Portland code enforcement inspector to show that Uber used Greyball to single out riders who were likely officials trying to catch Uber drivers.

According to the New York Times' Mike Isaac, who spoke to current and former Uber employees, Greyball tries to identify authorities through a number of vectors. It was also used worldwide in Australia, China, Italy and South Korea.

According to the article, the tool started as a way to protect drivers from violent opponents like taxi companies and unions in other countries, and Uber told the paper that that remains the primary goal of the Greyball tool.

The software works by collecting geolocation data and credit card information to determine whether the user is linked to an institution or law enforcement authority.

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.

The incident, which circulated on social media, was another hit for the image of the global ridesharing giant, which faces accusations of sexual harassment and a lawsuit contending it misappropriated Google's self-driving vehicle technology.

Kalanick also faced criticism for agreeing to be part of a business advisory panel for President Donald Trump, but then quit the panel amid a campaign by Trump opponents to delete the Uber application. In Las Vegas, local taxi regulators confronted an Uber driver while wearing ski masks. Uber drivers have been victims of physical harm as a result of some of these types of so-called "sting operations". Oregon Live reported at the time that officials with the City Commissioner's office couldn't seem to book a ride, leading them to theorize that they'd already been blocked by the ride-haling provider.

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