Uber Used Secret 'Greyball' Tool to Evade Authorities, Report Finds

Uber's already fledgling reputation as a reputable company is continuing its downward spiral this week, as Friday it was revealed that the ride-hailing service uses a secret program to sidestep and evade government authorities and local law enforcement.

"This program denies ride requests to fraudulent users who are violating our terms of service", Uber said in a statement. Four anonymous current and former Uber employees told them about the tool, it's estimated that around 60 people inside the company knew of the tool. It's a secretive tool called "Greyball" that Uber has used since 2014 to thwart authorities in cities where the service isn't yet legal but drivers are still picking up rides.

According to the Times, Uber has used Greyball in the US, France, Australia, China, South Korea, Italy, Kenya, India and more. Oh yeah, and now Uber admits to the whole thing.

Approved for use by Uber's legal team, "Greyball" originally was used as a way to protect drivers in places where they were targets of attacks from taxi workers.

In recent years, many states, including MA, have passed laws to explicitly make Uber legal. Those users were then "Greyballed" when they tried to get an Uber vehicle, with the app either showing no cars available or displaying "ghost cars" in a fake version of the app, Uber sources tell the Times.

Even as Uber operates legally in Portland today, officials still summon Uber drivers through its app to conduct code enforcement, which includes making sure the drivers are properly permitted, insured and qualified to drive for hire.

The program makes booking a ride hard for users whom Uber suspects of carrying out sting operations aimed at busting drivers in jurisdictions where its legality is unclear. The tool flagged users Uber believed were working against it in some way - like government inspectors - and made it nearly impossible for them to catch a ride. So, every time they booked a cab, a ghost fake app would appear and the software managed to get it cancelled.

Uber isn't denying the existence of the program. Geofencing certain municipal offices and watching who frequently opens and closes the Uber app is an option.

Ways of figuring out which users might be regulators or police included checking whether the credit cards used for the accounts were linked to governments or police credit unions.

Those include allegations of sexual harassment that prompted an internal investigation at the company, a video of Chief Executive Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver that led him to make a public apology and pledge to "grow up", and a lawsuit by Alphabet Inc's (GOOGL.O) self-driving auto unit, Waymo, accusing Uber of stealing designs for technology for autonomous cars.

  • Eleanor Harrison