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This Uber news is shadier than a white paneled van

(TECH NEWS) Uber is up to some shady stuff again that could have some real legal repercussions – more than just upsetting a Twitter mob this time.

uber

The accusations are uber-serious!

Ridesharing app, Uber has been using a hidden tool called “Greyball” to collect data that would identify law enforcement officials. The purpose?

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To allegedly evade authorities for illegally operating in cities or countries where Uber had no legal approval to provide certain or all services.

A leak of wiki proportions

The New York Times has acquired internal company documents from four anonymous whistleblowers, all Uber employees.

Greyball, these documents show, is part of Uber’s VTOS program that has been in operation since 2014.

The “Violation of Terms of Service” program was originally created to identify and blacklist users improperly targeting its services.

The program is currently operational in countries like South Korea, China, and Italy. But Uber has also used the program to evade authorities in many U.S. cities including Las Vegas and Boston.

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How does Greyball actually work?

A brilliant demonstration came as early as 2014 from Portland, Oregon when Uber had no approval to operate in the city. As part of a sting operation, Erich England, a code enforcement inspector, hailed a cab on his Uber app from downtown Oregon. The app displayed miniature vehicles on Mr. England’s screen.

However, the app was displaying “ghost cars” on purpose, and no physical cars were coming to pick him up.

The display, in other words, was a smokescreen, a fake version of the app.

The app had already identified Mr. England as a city official, thereby “greyballing” him, in order to circumvent being captured for covertly and illegally operating in the city.

Uber: A brief history

One of Silicon Valley’s biggest success stories, Uber is valued at $70 billion and operates in more than 70 countries around the world.

It is the dominant ride hailing company in the United States, and is expanding rapidly into South America and Asia.

The company’s roster of investors is impressive. Last year, Uber raised $3.5 billion from Saudi Arabia alone, in order to expand in the Middle East. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and even mutual fund giants like BlackRock have stakes in the company.

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When bad press is actually bad press

Uber has recently come under increased scrutiny for its aggressive work culture, rife with fear of retaliation, abuse, and insanely demanding work hours. Susan Flower, an ex-employee, published detailed accusations of discrimination and sexual harassment.

At a 2015 Las Vegas company party, Beyoncé was hired, Uber employees did cocaine in the hotel bathrooms, and a manager groped several female employees.

In a recently filed federal lawsuit, Google also sued Uber for using technology acquired through intellectual property theft.

This latest revelations of the existence of the Greyball tool really substantiates how dangerously far Uber will test legal boundaries in order to dominate the market.

Denial, not just a river in Egypt

Uber seemed to defend its practice as more of a necessary, preventative step.

“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.”

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Nevertheless, the law enforcements agencies might have a vastly different interpretation of this behavior. The VTOS program and the Greyball tool, it seems to analysts, was developed in response to the fallout of the UberX service.

Makin’ waves

The UberX feature (summoning a noncommercial driver in a private car with only cursory background check) ran into legal hurdles globally, including in U.S. cities like Austin, Philadelphia, and Tampa.

As a result, Uber started losing thousands of dollars in lost revenues to law enforcement officials for impounded or ticketed UberX drivers.

The Greyball tool was then introduced. Identify enforcement officers, preempt their sting operations by displaying a fake app, and never offer an actual ride.

If the plan was simple, the modus operandi was straight up sinister

The tool utilized around a dozen mechanisms to identify officers.

Including, but not limited to, stalking on social media; “geofencing” around authorities’ office buildings; checking credit card information tied with the Uber account; and even blacklisting cheap mobile phone numbers, which city officials with limited budgets were most likely to purchase and use during large-scale sting operations.

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Can’t trust them as far as you can throw them

Such sophistication has proven to be a largely effective technique. Now the big question is, how aggressive and effective the law agencies would be in challenging Uber’s current practices.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Perhaps even more to the point, can the public trust such devious companies?” quote=”Perhaps even more to the point, can the public trust such devious companies?”]

Uber is not new to legal hurdles. But the latest revelations seem more like breach. A breach of faith, ethics, and probably the law.

#UberShady

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Barnil is a Staff Writer at The American Genius. With a Master's Degree in International Relations, Barnil is a Research Assistant at UT, Austin. When he hikes, he falls. When he swims, he sinks. When he drives, others honk. But when he writes, people read.

3 Comments

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  1. Pingback: Uber's tipping policy is janky, also potentially illegal - The American Genius

  2. Pingback: Uber, a company of masochists that just can't stop self-sabotaging - The American Genius

  3. Pingback: Uber is back in hot water and is facing a criminal probe - The American Genius

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