Ride-sharing giant Uber is exactly the kind of tech company I despise: they come in and "disrupt" business, cheat at it, throw money at it, and act like spoiled brats when they get resistance. But this NY Times story shows the depths to which the company will sink to when it comes to dealing with curious cops.
Uber has for years engaged in a worldwide program to deceive the authorities in markets where its low-cost ride-hailing service was being resisted by law enforcement or, in some instances, had been outright banned.
The program, involving a tool called Greyball, uses data collected from the Uber app and other techniques to identify and circumvent officials. Uber used these methods to evade the authorities in cities such as Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, and in countries like Australia, China, Italy and South Korea.
Greyball was part of a broader program called VTOS, short for “violation of terms of service,” which Uber created to root out people it thought were using or targeting its service improperly. The VTOS program, including the Greyball tool, began as early as 2014 and remains in use, predominantly outside the United States. Greyball was approved by Uber’s legal team.
Greyball and the broader VTOS program were described to The New York Times by four current and former Uber employees, who also provided documents. The four spoke on the condition of anonymity because the tools and their use are confidential and because of fear of retaliation by the company.
Information is the greatest weapon of them all, folks, and Uber is king at using it. A company that has an app that literally knows where you are at all times can use that to play all the games it wants to, and nobody beats Uber at it.
Uber’s use of Greyball was recorded on video in late 2014, when Erich England, a code enforcement inspector in Portland, Ore., tried to hail an Uber car downtown as part of a sting operation against the company.
At the time, Uber had just started its ride-hailing service in Portland without seeking permission from the city, which later declared the service illegal. To build a case against the company, officers like Mr. England posed as riders, opening the Uber app to hail a car and watching as the miniature vehicles on the screen made their way toward the potential fares.
But unknown to Mr. England and other authorities, some of the digital cars they saw in the app did not represent actual vehicles. And the Uber drivers they were able to hail also quickly canceled. That was because Uber had tagged Mr. England and his colleagues — essentially Greyballing them as city officials — based on data collected from the app and in other ways. The company then served up a fake version of the app populated with ghost cars, to evade capture.
The real question is of course if Uber can use this technology to make sure cops don't get rides, well, it can use that technology to make sure anyone it wants to can be "greyballed out". And you'd never know.
Time is money. Uber wants to make as much as possible, so matching up fat fares with profitable drives is the kind of thing a datamining startup can excel at, taking into account traffic conditions, weather, position, history, and oh yeah, all your personal information.
So maybe you'd get that ride. But maybe Uber makes more money if you pick up this other guy over here two blocks over. Not your fault, it's playing the percentages. But maybe you don't get a ride for 30 minutes...when Uber can charge later surge pricing, for example, because of high volume.
At a time when Uber is already under scrutiny for its boundary-pushing workplace culture, its use of the Greyball tool underscores the lengths to which the company will go to dominate its market. Uber has long flouted laws and regulations to gain an edge against entrenched transportation providers, a modus operandi that has helped propel the company into more than 70 countries and to a valuation close to $70 billion.
Yet using its app to identify and sidestep the authorities in places where regulators said Uber was breaking the law goes further toward skirting ethical lines — and, potentially, legal ones. Some within the company who knew about the VTOS program and how the Greyball tool was being used were troubled by it.
In a statement, Uber said, “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.”
Dylan Rivera, a spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, said in a statement: “We’re very concerned to hear that this practice continued at least into 2015 and affected other cities.
“We take any effort to undermine our efforts to protect the public very seriously,” Mr. Rivera said.
Most of all is the fact that Uber has pretty much decided it's going to put every cab company on the planet out of business, and that it's going to run over every local government that dares to get in its way as a multinational "disruptor of tech". Laws don't apply to Uber, it seems...and it has the money to make those laws go away. Now we see it also has the tech to make the law go away too.
Nice company, huh?