Uber's Secret, Law-Enforcement-Evading Tech Revealed

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 03, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It seems like not a week goes by without a new Uber story to cover -- and they're rarely good ones. Just in the past few weeks, Uber has been hit with an unpermitted self-driving car scandal, a #deleteuber campaign, a sexual harassment scandal, a related workplace culture scandal, another sexual harassment scandal, and a CEO cursing at drivers scandal. Today, there's one more to heap on the pile.

This afternoon, the New York Times revealed that Uber has been using, for several years, a secret program designed to evade regulatory authorities.

Meet Greyball, Uber's Secret Tech

The program at issue is called "Greyball." According to anonymous insiders who spoke to the Times, Greyball works by using data collected from the Uber app and "other technologies" in order "to identify and circumvent officials." Part of Uber's larger VTOS program (named for "violation of terms of service"), Greyball allowed Uber to root out people it suspected of using the app improperly. That included local regulators.

The Times points to Portland as an example. When Uber began operating in the Oregon city in 2014, it did so without consulting the officials beforehand. It was soon declared illegal.

Portland officials sought to run a "sting" on the company, catching its drivers picking up passengers illegally. But every time they requested a car, they couldn't catch one. Uber had "served up a fake version of the app populated with ghost cars, to evade capture," according to the Times.

The program worked partly by monitoring government offices, finding users that frequently opened the app near such locations. It also used user's credit card information to connect them to institutions like the police credit union, the Times reports. Uber employees even searched out government workers' social media profiles, to match them to Uber accounts.

In a statement, the company said that the 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 program was reportedly approved by Uber's legal department, including Uber GC Salle Yoo, but the legality of the technology is questionable. Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning told the Times that Greyball could run afoul of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or count as obstruction of justice.

"With any time of systematic thwarting of the law, you're flirting with disaster," Henning says.

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