Uber’s very bad year just got worse. The New York Times is reporting that the company used secret internal software as well as good old-fashioned cyberstalking to identify law enforcement officials who were investigating Uber’s business practices. The situation is even crazier than it sounds.
The program is called “Greyball.” (Like “blackball” but grey, get it?) According to the Times, 50 or 60 Uber employees knew about the tool, and the company put it to use in Boston, Las Vegas, Paris, and Portland, Oregon, as well as a handful of other countries outside of the US. The basic idea behind Greyball involved spotting and thwarting authorities who were using the Uber app as part of sting operations, often in American cities where the service had been deemed illegal.
Precisely how Uber went to war with police is where this story veers into the realm of absurdity. The Times tells one story about a Portland code enforcement inspector who tried hailing rides downtown with little success. This is because the inspector had been “grayballed,” meaning that drivers were alerted to his status when they accepted the ride and quickly canceled. Meanwhile, Uber deceived the inspector and “served up a fake version of its app that was populated with ghost cars, to evade capture,” the Times reports.
Ghost cars would be wild enough, but Uber reportedly employed even more extreme methods to track down authorities. Uber is said to have set up geo-fences around police stations and other areas where they suspected investigators were investigating. If an Uber user within that area was opening and closing the app often, they got flagged. The Times also says that Uber traced users’ credit card information in order to determine “whether that card was tied directly to an institution like a police credit union.” Uber apparently also searched for social media accounts to figure out where suspected narcs worked.
But that’s not even the nuttiest thing. In larger investigations, investigators would sometimes buy up a bunch of burner phones to avoid being tracked. Uber figured this out and, according to the Times, “employees went to that city’s local electronics stores to look up device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones on sale, which were often the ones bought by city officials, whose budgets were not sizable.”
This seems incredibly creepy if not terribly surprising, since Uber has developed a reputation for ruthlessness when it comes to pushing its services into new markets — but it hardly helps the company’s beleaguered public image. In the past month alone, the company has also caught flak for allegedly harbouring a culture of sexual harassment. In fact, just a few minutes before the Times story about greyballing, another former employee accused Uber management of sexism and harassment. Meanwhile, Uber’s billionaire CEO Travis Kalanick got caught on camera yelling at a driver who complained about plummeting wages at the company. Kalanick later apologised and said, “I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”
While Uber has responded with literal tears to some of those revelations, the company appeared wholly unrepentant when asked about the Greyball program, suggesting it was the fault of those who enforce the actual law for violating Uber’s self-authored terms and conditions.
“This program denies ride requests to users who are violating our terms of service,” Uber told Gizmodo in a statement, “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 has been remarkably responsive to other recent rounds of bad press, but when it comes to regulation, the company clearly thinks Uber law still trumps the real thing.