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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

Facebook policy sets themselves up for yet another failure

(TECH) Facebook’s role in news consumption increases, and their new policy regarding news is raising eyebrows.

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Facebook did not get a lot of likes a when it was facing scrutiny for taking money for Russian ads, and their subsequent role in the 2016 Presidential election. In response to that, Facebook announced its Ad Archive – a public political archive to allow users more transparency in who purchased those ads like you can on television. Additionally, they changed their political ads policy.

Of course, the goal of this is to promote transparency and give the public an opportunity to scrutinize advertisers and have more control about what they do with that information. Facebook and the world at large acknowledges that still isn’t a perfect solution, and there are many problems left to work out, including how perpetrators can get around the new rules by simply setting up an LLC.

Now, Facebook says they will include news pages in their Ad Archives. While this decision was originally opposed by many news publishers, and Facebook compromised by putting them in a separate category, it has officially become part of Facebook policy.

To be a news page, there are several criteria pages and promoters must follow, including focusing on current events and news, spreading factual and true information, and publishing content that is not user generated or aggregated from other areas of the web. Also, the amount of advertising content can not exceed the amount of content related to news.

Facebook’s decision to include news publishers involved some input from The Trust Project was a decent step, but it’s almost certain that many publishers are raising their eyebrows at the decision to include them in the archive, with the indication that news organizations are as suspect as corrupt Russian players. It is particularly grating in an environment where Twitter has opted not to lump news and Russian actors together.

Certainly, how publishers spend their dollars and make platform decisions will be impacted, especially as this continues. Given the broad domains of ad archive – elections, elected officials, and issues of national importance – we are likely to see how things play out over the next few months.

The biggest concern of course, is how this sets Facebook up for another failure in regards to how it handles news, and how this will impact the people receiving that news. And hopefully, we find out before the stakes are too high.

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Tech News

Quickly delete years of your stupid Facebook updates

(SOCIAL MEDIA) Digital clutter sucks. Save time and energy with this new Chrome extension for Facebook.

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When searching for a new job, it’s always a good idea to scan your social media presence to make sure you’re not setting yourself up for failure with offensive or immature posts.

In fact, you should regularly check your digital life even if you’re not on the job hunt. You never know when friends, family, or others are going to rabbit hole into reading everything you’ve ever posted.

Facebook is an especially dangerous place for this since the social media giant has been around for over fourteen years. Many accounts are old enough to be in middle school now.

If you’ve ever taken a deep dive into your own account, you may have found some unsavory posts you couldn’t delete quickly enough.

We all have at least one cringe-worthy post or picture buried in years of digital clutter. Maybe you were smart from the get-go and used privacy settings. Or maybe you periodically delete posts when Memories resurfaces that drunk college photo you swore wasn’t on the internet anymore.

But digging through years of posts is time consuming, and for those of us with accounts older than a decade, nearly impossible.

Fortunately, a new Chrome extension can take care of this monotonous task for you. Social Book Post Manager helps clean up your Facebook by bulk deleting posts at your discretion.

Instead of individually removing posts and getting sucked into the ensuing nostalgia, this extension deletes posts in batches with the click of a button.

Select a specific time range or search criteria and the tool pulls up all relevant posts. From here, you decide what to delete or make private.

Let’s say you want to destroy all evidence of your political beliefs as a youngster. Simply put in the relevant keyword, like a candidate or party’s name, and the tool pulls up all posts matching that criteria. You can pick and choose, or select all for a total purge.

You can also salt the earth and delete everything pre-whatever date you choose. I could tell Social Book to remove everything before 2014 and effectively remove any proof that I attended college.

Keep in mind, this tool only deletes posts and photos from Facebook itself. If you have any savvy enemies who saved screenshots or you cross-posted, you’re out of luck.

The extension is free to use, and new updates support unliking posts and hiding timeline items. Go to town pretending you got hired on by the Ministry of Truth to delete objectionable history for the greater good of your social media presence.

PS: If you feel like going full scorched Earth, delete everything from your Facebook past and then switch to this browser to make it harder for Facebook to track you while you’re on the web.

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Tech News

Why are all apps starting to look exactly the same?

(TECHNOLOGY) As apps evolve, they are beginning to look uniform – is this a good or bad thing?

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Have you noticed that all apps are beginning to look a lot alike? Many popular social media apps are utilizing minimalist designs, featuring lots of black and white with negative space and little color.

At a glance, you may not be able to differentiate what’s Airbnb and what’s Instagram. Normally, something like this could be argued to be unoriginal and boring. However, let’s look at the positives.

If every app – for the most part – is operating with the same design, they’re not trying to constantly one-up each other with the next big look. As a result, they have more time to focus on what’s important – the content found on the app and the functions of the app.

While many apps offer similar features (like Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram both having Stories), every social media app has its own flair that keeps users coming back. And, user retention is higher if they feel comfortable using the app – which is another plus of them all having similar designs.

If you have 12 different social media apps with 12 different interfaces and means of operation, it’s unlikely that a user will keep up with all 12. But, if they know exactly how to use them, the user can flip back and forth like it’s nothing.

However, “app fatigue is a real thing,” said Yaz of UX Collective. “Most people have grown tired of bouncing between too many apps or learning how to use a new interface after every new download.”

Below is Yaz’s exploration of the uniformity in apps:

Research has found that a quarter of all apps are deleted after just one use. People tend to stick with the apps that they have found made a positive impact in their lives – either for communication with others or apps that save them time.

Uniformity means developers can spend more of their time on creating the content that will aid in better communication and more time saving options.

Again, what it comes down to is the content and function. That’s where the true creativity comes in. People aren’t using Airbnb because the app or the website are ridiculously exciting; they’re using it because it offers a service that is beneficial.

What are your thoughts on app uniformity? Unoriginal, or a stepping stone for what’s really important?

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