Uber's secret app foils undercover regulators

The New York Times first reported the existence of the program, called Greyball, which uses data from the Uber app and other methods to identify and circumvent officials who aimed to ticket or apprehend drivers in cities that opposed its operations.

Uber told the newspaper Greyball denies ride requests for people who are violating the company's terms of service for a multitude of reasons, including enforcement stings.

Uber said the program was used in locations where drivers feared for their safety, and "rarely" to avoid law enforcement. State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat who past year led the drafting of state regulations overseeing Uber, said the Times report "raises a lot of red flags right now about the veracity of the company". Those markets include Boston, Paris and Las Vegas in the US, as well as Australia, China, Italy and South Korea.

In Portland, officials sought to gather evidence for Uber's illegal operations by having the authorities request rides on the app. Uber used the service in Portland, when it had just started without any legal permission.

Greyballed officials trying to use Uber would have rides cancelled and be shown fake versions of the app, complete with maps showing icons of ghost cars appearing to be on the move. Greyball is part of a broader programme called VTOS, shorthand for "violations of terms of service", that Uber developed to protect its service.

On Friday, Uber's best-known security researcher resigned without stating any reasons why, leading to speculation over whether there had been a link to the Greyball tool.

The bottom line is: make sure the unwanted individuals can't catch a ride.

Reportedly, Uber managers in a particular city would identify the locations of city government offices and monitor users who used the apps in those areas.

The Uber secret program Greyball collects geolocation data, social media accounts, credit card information, and other such data sources to identify customers who supposedly conduct sting operations. Or Uber can check if a credit card used to sign up for its service is linked to a police credit union. Meanwhile, Uber's billionaire CEO Travis Kalanick got caught on camera yelling at a driver who complained about plummeting wages at the company.

"Uber clearly lost its moral compass if it ever had one", entrepreneur and journalist John Battelle said in a Twitter post referring to the Greyball news.

"Uber is an incredibly disruptive cyber technology, so it's not surprising that it also skirts the boundaries of legality", Geers said in a statement.

Uber has come under fire as of late, defending accusations of unfair working conditions and allegations of sexual harassment within the company and employee abuse.

  • Anthony Vega