50 Shades of Greyball (idk…)
Just when you thought Uber couldn’t get any shadier, the Justice Department said, hey guess what, Uber? We’re starting a criminal investigation on you guys.
Well, technically the DOJ has declined to comment, but that’s just their policy when it comes to potential investigations.
Like blackballing, but sketchier
Sources familiar with the situation reported the U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal probe is looking into Uber Technologies’ use of “Greyball,” a software tool that helped drivers avoid local transportation regulators.
“Greyballing” refers to the practice of showing a different version of the app to some customers.
Uber acknowledged their Greyball software allowed drivers identify and evade government officials in cities where services were not yet approved, like Portland, Oregon.
After The New York Times shed light on this, Uber said the software was meant to check ride requests for legitimacy.
In a letter publicized by Portland authorities last week, Uber lawyers said the technology was used “exceedingly sparingly” before ride-sharing was approved in the city.
Uber claims they haven’t used the technique since April 2015, when Portland adopted rules allowing Uber to operate legally.
So what does Greyball do?
Uber said the software is meant to prevent fraud and safeguard drivers. As part of a larger program called Violation of Terms and Services, Greyball determines if ride requests are legitimate by analyzing information on the credit card, device, and location of the request.
If the ride request turns out to be illegitimate, a driver would not be dispatched to the location.
Except oops, Greyball maybe did more than that.
In an effort to avoid fines and impounding, the technology was used against anyone suspected of being a local official targeting Uber. Oh, and it might have also mined social media and credit card info to see if the requester was associated with law enforcement.
You know, just standard stuff when you’re evading the law.
Transportation officials in Portland reported Uber used Greyball to evade at least 16 Bureau of Transportation Officials in December 2014, when Uber was not yet authorized to operate in the city. Apparently dozens of rides were denied to officials requesting the service.
However, the city said it found no evidence of this behavior continuing once Uber was legitimized the next year.
So yeah, this looks great for them. In the wake of sexual harassment claims, executive departures, a trade-secrets lawsuit, and CEO Travis Kalanick’s backseat outburst in February, things aren’t going so well for Uber.
Even Kalanick admits to this, saying in a letter to his staff, “I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”
Explore other options
The investigation is still in its early stages, and it’s unclear if anyone will be charged. So far, Uber officials and the Justice Department have yet to comment.
In the meantime, it might be time for customers to investigate any other ride-sharing service in case Uber crashes and burns in the fires of its own issues.