Uber has secret ‘Greyball’ tool to evade law enforcement and other opponents

Adam Westlake - Mar 4, 2017
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Uber has secret ‘Greyball’ tool to evade law enforcement and other opponents

Uber‘s already fledgling reputation as a reputable company is continuing its downward spiral this week, as Friday it was revealed that the ride-hailing service uses a secret program to sidestep and evade government authorities and local law enforcement. Known as “Greyball,” this tool, which is currently in use worldwide, is used to allow Uber to operate in cities where the service is not approved or outright banned due to regulations.

A new report from the New York Times reveals Uber’s use of its Greyball tool, which operates under the company’s “violation of terms of service” (VTOS) program. This program aims to address legitimate concerns such riders who may intend to harm drivers and competing services looking to interfere with Uber rides, but it also blocks law enforcement in an effort to avoid getting ticketed or apprehended for violating taxi regulations or operating illegally.

A statement from Uber to the NY Times said the following:

“This program denies 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.”

The report details how Uber put Greyball to use by collecting data from its own mobile app and behavior patterns of users. When the company wanted to operate in cities where it wasn’t yet approved, or was meeting resistance, it would identify the offices of law enforcement and other regulators and monitor users who frequently opened and closed the Uber app — a sign they were keeping tabs on the company and possibly planning a sting.

These users would then be flagged and “greyballed,” with their version of the app either being populated with fake “ghost” cars, or with no cars at all, in turn preventing them from hailing a ride and catching Uber in the act of breaking the law.

But in order to identify police and other authorities, the company even went as far as checking users’ credit card info to see if a police credit union was used, as well as identifying cheap burner phones sold in stores, as these were often used by officials to create multiple Uber accounts, thanks to budget restrictions.

According to the NY Times, the Greyball program has been approved by Uber’s legal team. The company maintains, however, that its use has been scaled back recently. While it was originally developed as a way to protect drivers from violence and prevent abuse from competitors, Greyball was put to use in Boston, Las Vegas, Portland, and Paris — all locations that were resistant to Uber’s operations — in addition to many other cities around the globe.

SOURCE New York Times


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