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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

FCC Chairman confirms fears, jokes about being a Verizon shill

(TECH NEWS) FCC Chairman Ajit Pai jokes about being a shill for Verizon, feeding into what many suspected when he was appointed.

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Leaked video shows FCC Chairman Ajit Pai joking about being a shill for Verizon, as we all suspected when he was nominated. Last week Pai was a speaker at the Federal Communications Bar Association, an event similar to the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Major telecom companies and the FCC gather at this annual event for dinner, mingling, and enduring awkward political policy jokes. At the event, Pai roasted himself about major headlines from the past year, like his decision to kill net neutrality against the wishes of the majority of the nation. Hilarious.

Pai also brought up the whole thing where he refused to cooperate with an investigation into the validity of comments filed in support of ending net neutrality.

Although cameras weren’t officially present at the event, someone surreptitiously filmed and sent the clip to Gizmodo. The kicker comes around twenty minutes into Pai’s speech when he jokes, “in collusion—I mean, in conclusion, sorry, my bad—many people are still shell-shocked that I’m up here tonight.”

He goes on, “they ask themselves, how on earth did this happen? Well, moments before tonight’s dinner, somebody leaked a fourteen-year-old video that helps answer that question, and in all candor, I can no longer hide from the truth.”

Pai then starts a video, which opens with 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” playing in the background. This is the only thing I’ll give him points for on this amateur drama class project.

The skit is set in 2003 at “Verizon’s DC Office”, when Pai was an attorney for the company. In the video, Kathy Grillo, current Verizon senior VP and deputy general counsel, tells Pai, “As you know, the FCC is captured by the industry, but we think it’s not captured enough, so we have a plan.”

“What plan?” Pai asks. Grillo tells him, “We want to brainwash and groom a Verizon puppet to install as FCC chairman. Think ‘Manchurian Candidate.’” To which Pai responds, “That sounds awesome!”

Gizmodo posted the video on Friday after the dinner, and the internet exploded with reactions to Pai’s gag. Reddit in particular went nuts, to the point that one thread in r/technology was locked—as in no one else can comment—for “too much violence.”

In a thread on the r/television subreddit, a moderator reminds users, “please refrain from encouraging or inciting violence or posting personal information […] don’t post anything inviting harassment, don’t harass, and don’t cheer on or upvote obvious vigilantism.”

While some of the threads were full of awful remarks, other posters commented in the spirit of reasonable conversation. The general sentiment of those engaged in non-harassing discussions is that Pai is a symptom, not the cause of FCC’s problems.

However, many argued that the video showed Pai’s willingness to bend (then joke about) FCC regulations indicates he’s not a puppet so much as a willing participant in corruption. Pai’s appointment to FCC Chairman was suspicious from the beginning considering his ties to Verizon.

Although Pai is obviously joking in the leaked video, the general public isn’t find it nearly as funny as those at the dinner.

Check out the clip for some cringe-worthy digs at net neutrality and have fun questioning the integrity of the FCC.

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Tech News

FCC Grinches plan to steal poor peoples’ Internet access

(TECH NEWS) Merry Christmas! The FCC is trying to take away poor people’s Internet access, pointing the finger one way to distract you from the other.

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In case anybody with enough bandwidth to read this wasn’t sufficiently terrified by the FCC’s ongoing campaign to break the internet by dismantling net neutrality, the nation’s communication authority has kindly provided another reason for any digital-enabled American to expatriate and/or secede.

The FCC’s most recent reform proposal proposes to reform the absolute Hell out of Lifeline, the $2.25 billion program to provide low-income Americans with broadband Internet access. Also, phones. The Lifeline Program has been doing its job since 1985, when noted socialist firebrand Ronald Reagan instituted it to subsidize phone service in underprivileged communities. It was expanded to include broadband Internet access in 2016, and right now 12 million households benefit from Lifeline-subsidized phone and Internet access.

That’s apparently a problem.

The FCC’s stated concern is that the General Accounting Office recently found $1.2 million of the $2.25 billion Lifeline budget was being used fraudulently. Fraud is bad! But in case you don’t have your TI-85 handy, that’s less than a tenth of 1 percent. That is not very much fraud. Not enough to nix an entire program, at least.

The greater concern, as usual, appears to be about profit. Under the current Lifeline guidelines, many subsidized companies are small ISPs and resellers providing access to third-party networks. Often, these services are the only Internet access available in rural areas, tribal lands, and other underserved communities.

That doesn’t work for Commissioner Pai.

Earlier this year, Pai used “delegated authority,” the FCC’s version of executive orders, to bypass oversight and personally rescind subsidy access from 9 ISPs providing services to rural areas and tribal lands.

These reforms continue that trend. They ban subsidies for no-cost Internet service, which is the business model of 70% of current Lifeline subsidy recipients. It is notably not the business model of large ISPs that rhyme with Buhrizon. I’m sure that’s a coincidence.

They also impose an absolute budget cap, meaning that millions of poor households could lose their Internet access, and the increased opportunities for education and employment that come with it, if someone in a comfy office a thousand miles away effs up the accounting.

In short, it sucks.

The proposed reforms to the Lifeline Project are another example of the FCC, deliberately or through negligence, rigging the market in favor of major conglomerates at the expense of consumers, small businesses and the general public.

Lifeline isn’t perfect, but it’s doing its job. Whether the same can be said for Ajit Pai’s FCC is, at best, an open question.

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Tech News

Get motivated with a ding sound every time someone visits your new site

(TECHNOLOGY) This tool provides motivation for new websites by ding-donging every time a new visitor stops by! Talk about a dopamine rush!!

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It seems like everyone these days has a brand new website they can’t wait to share with the world. All these micro-businesses are starting their journeys at the very beginning: with zero website visitors, big plans, and a lot of hope. A new chrome extension has found a way to help motivate these big dreamers at the very beginning of their business’ lives.

Startup Bell – a doorbell for Google Analytics – audibly rings every time a website gets a new user and shows the number of current active users right in their browser’s toolbar.

That simple ding-dong could soon provide a dopamine rush to any founder that uses it. In the early days of startups and passion project websites’ visitors- though initially, typically the founder’s mom and their Facebook friends – are a positive indication that business is growing and that reassuring ding-dong is real time motivation to keep doing what you’re doing.

Marketing a business is now as inexpensive as it’s ever been with cheap Instagram and Facebook ads reaching a prime millennial audience. With to-the-minute feedback, this Chrome extension can give you insight into which marketing strategies work and which flop. It’s also an immediate payoff to that ten dollar Facebook ad.

While this lean extension only provides a ding-dong for every new visitor and has very few settings, maker Branimir hopes that future versions will include the option to have dings at certain intervals (like every 100 visitors) to support websites as they grow and don’t ding incessantly.

Branimir also stated on Product Hunt, that future versions of the plug-in may offer a similar tool for sales. When the noise played means money in your pocket, that dopamine rush could get even more addictive.

This is simple little plug-in could provide much needed motivation for startups and new businesses alike. With real-time feedback, companies will get a morale boost in the early stages of their company’s life. The next step is to make sure users’ dogs don’t go crazy every time someone visits their website and they hear that ding-dong.

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