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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.

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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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Perhaps even more to the point, can the public trust such devious companies?Click To Tweet

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

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.

Tech News

Google set to release new AI-operated meeting room kit… and it’s pretty baller

(TECH NEWS) Google’s newest toy is designed to “put people first” by alleviating video and audio issues for conference room meetings.

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Google Meet Series One is a new meeting kit that puts people first.

Remote meetings can be the worst sometimes. The awful video and audio quality are frustrating when you’re trying to hear important details for an upcoming project. Even with the fastest internet connection, this doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to clearly hear or see anyone who’s in the office. But Google is re-imagining conference rooms with their new video conferencing hardware.

Yesterday, the company introduced Google Meet Series One. In partnership with Lenovo, this meeting room kit is made exclusively for Google Meet and is poised to be the hardware that “puts people first.”

The Series One has several components that make it stand out. First is the “Smart Audio Bar,” powered by eight beam-forming microphones. Using Google Edge TPUs, the soundbar can deliver TrueVoice®, the company’s “proprietary, multi-channel noise cancellation technology.” It removes distracting sounds, like annoying finger and foot-tapping noises, so everyone’s voices are crystal clear from anywhere in the room.

The hardware also has 4K smart cameras that allow for high-resolution video and digital PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) effects. Processed with Google AI, the device knows to automatically zoom in and out so all of the meetings’ participants are framed in the camera. With an i7 processor and Google Edge TPUs, the system is built to “handle the taxing demands of video conferencing along with running the latest in Google AI as efficiently and reliably as possible.”

The meeting kit has Google grade security built-in, so the system automatically updates over-the-air. The system also works seamlessly with Google services and apps we already use. Its touch control display is powered by a single ethernet cable. From the admin controls, you can manage meeting lists and control room settings. Powered by assistant voice commands, their touch controller provides a “touchless touchability”; if you want to, you can join a meeting just by saying, “Hey Google, join the meeting.”

These new meeting kits are easy to install and are versatile. They can be configured to fit small, medium, and large-sized rooms. “Expanding kits for larger rooms can be done with just an ethernet cable and the tappable Mic Pod, which expands microphone reach and allows for mute/unmute control.”

According to the Google Meet Series One introductory video, the meeting room kits are “beautifully and thoughtfully designed to make video meetings approachable and immersive so everyone gets a seat at the table.”

Currently, there is no release date set for Google Meet Series One. However, pre-orders will soon be available in the US, Canada, Finland, France, Norway, Spain, Ireland, United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Netherlands, Denmark, and Belgium.

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Tech News

One creepy way law enforcement might have your private data

(TECH NEWS) Wait, geofences do what? Law enforcement can pull your private data if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Man walking on crosswalk with phone, but his private data could be vulnerable.

By now, it’s pretty common knowledge that our smartphones are tracking us, but what you might not be aware of is just how much law enforcement is taking advantage of our private data. Now, the good news is that some places have gotten wise to this breach of privacy and are banning certain tactics. The bad news is: If you were ever in the vicinity of a recent crime scene, it’s quite possible your privacy has already been invaded.

How are law enforcement doing this? Well, it starts with a geofence.

At its core, a geofence is a virtual border around a real geographic location. This can serve many purposes, from creating marketing opportunities for targeted ads to tracking shipping packages. In the case of law enforcement, though, geofences are often used in something called a geofence warrant.

Traditionally, warrants identify a subject first, then retrieve their electronic records. A geofence warrant, on the other hand, identifies a time and place and pulls electronic data from that area. If you’re thinking “hey, that sounds sketchy,” you are–forgive the pun–completely warranted.

With a geofence, law enforcement can dig through your private data, not because they have proof you were involved in a crime, but because you happened to be nearby.

This practice, though relatively new, is on the rise: Google reported a 15-fold increase in geofence warrant requests between 2017 and 2018. As well as invading privacy, these warrants have led to false arrests and can be used against peaceful protesters. Not to mention, in many cases, geofence warrants can be extremely easy to acquire. One report in Minnesota found judges signed off on these cases in under 4 minutes.

Thankfully, there have been signs of people pushing back against the use of geofence warrants. In fact, there have been multiple federal court rulings that find the practice in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” including your electronic data.

If you’re still worried about your privacy, there are ways to keep your electronic data on lock. For example, turn off your location services when you’re traveling, and avoid connecting to open Wi-Fi networks. You can also work to limit location sharing with apps and websites.

These and other tips can be a great way to help you avoid not just geofence warrants, but others who want to use your electronic information for their own gain.

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Tech News

Incoming! Amazon drones will be dropping off packages soon (we hope)

(TECH NEWS) The Federal Aviation Administration has approved Amazon for drone delivery service, but when will the drones actually take flight?

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One of Prime Air's drones ready for test flights.

Amazon has finally received the stamp of approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to deliver packages by drones. This pivotal step brings the online retailer closer to their promise of delivering packages to customers in 30 minutes or less.

In 2013, during CBS’s “60 Minutes” interview, Amazon CEO and Founder, Jeff Bezos, said drones would be delivering customers’ packages within five years. Although the estimate is a couple of years off, it seems like that day might be right around the corner.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the day when little floating presents are sailing through the sky (Animal Crossing balloons, anyone?). Despite our excitement to see our latest Amazon impulse purchase land on our doorstep, it isn’t going to happen overnight.

The Part 135 Air Carrier Certificate Amazon obtained for its fleet of Prime Air drones will allow the company to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) “to carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight.” Although the FAA certification is allowing Amazon to begin test trials, Bloomberg reports that the retail giant still has “regulatory and technical hurdles” to overcome.

In addition, the FAA has yet to set regulations that will “serve as a framework to expand drone flights over crowds, a building block necessary for deliveries.” Amazon hasn’t said when and where it will start testing the delivery service either.

David Carbon, Amazon Vice President who oversees Prime Air, made this statement: “This certification is an important step forward for Prime Air and indicates the FAA’s confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for an autonomous drone delivery service that will one day deliver packages to our customers around the world.”

This approval is definitely a step forward, but Amazon has been working on the drone delivery service for years. Early last year, the giant retailer revealed they would start offering one-day shipping. They have followed through on this, at least. And during a Las Vegas Conference in June 2019, they revealed their “fully electric drones that can fly up to 15 miles and deliver packages under five pounds to customers in less than 30 minutes.” But it still doesn’t answer when we can expect to see whizzing drones overhead.

I’m not sure when Amazon will fulfill their last promise. But it is getting closer. What I do know is that I look forward to the Amazon drones taking flight. I can’t wait to place my orders knowing that I will get that last-minute present I ordered just in time.

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