If at first you don’t succeed, go to elaborate lengths to trick and evade regulatory authorities trying to bring you down. That appears to be the maxim at Uber, if a new report is accurate.
Investigating users’ social media profiles, bank accounts, phone models, and creating a fake version of the app are just some of the lengths Uber reportedly went to in order to operate in cities where the legality of its ride-hail service was in doubt.
According to the The New York Times, Uber systematically messed with officials trying to hold it to account via a complex array of methods including an internal tool called Greyball. Created in 2014, Greyball was allegedly part of an ongoing Uber program dubbed VTOS (violation of terms of service), which analyzes user data to determine whether or not a specific user is abusing the app. Greyball looked at the same data to determine if a user was a government employee.
If such a determination was made, Uber would cancel requested rides or show that person fake cars within the app, the report says.
Just how did Uber decide who was worthy of being “greyballed?” Let us count the creepy ways.
The company would identify the location of government buildings and note which users were repeatedly opening and closing the app in the area. Employees also looked at credit cards to see if banking information, such as the use of a police credit union, could provide any hints. What’s more, Uber would trawl social media accounts in an effort to tie a customer to a city agency.
That’s right, Uber was looking through users’ social media profiles in an effort to deny them rides.
But sometimes all that sleuthing wasn’t enough, as city employees would buy multiple phones to set up numerous accounts in order to pull off targeted stings. Uber had a way around this, too. Uber employees would go to electronics stores and find the model numbers of the least expensive phones. The thinking, apparently, was that city budgets for this kind of thing are small and officials would be buying the cheapest phones possible. Those model numbers were an additional piece of data, one of many, that the company reportedly used to decide who was and was not out to get them.
Creepy paranoia? Nah, just Uber being Uber.
When someone was identified as a likely government employee, Uber would load a fake version of their app in the phone and display cars that didn’t really exist. Uber has previously admitted that its app doesn’t necessarily show the accurate locations of its drivers’ cars.
If all of this sounds to you like a lot of work, you’d be right. That’s where the streamlining came in: Uber employees are reported to have created a detailed guide for use and given it to managers around the world.
A statement issued by Uber to The New York Times didn’t deny the paper’s claims, but emphasized the various uses of the VTOS program.
“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.”
Officials, shall we say, are not pleased. “We take any effort to undermine our efforts to protect the public very seriously,” the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Dylan Rivera told the paper.
Rivera has cause for frustration, as PBOT employees worked to catch Uber drivers in the act back in 2014 when the legality of the service was still up in the air. A video from one such attempted sting documents two drivers canceling on the official — possibly after being identified by Greyball.
And so where does this leave Uber? The company has not said it will cease the use of Greyball, and based on the ride-hail giant’s history asking forgiveness rather than permission we can only imagine Uber will continue to do so unless it is made to stop.
So the next time a string of drivers cancel on you it may not be because of your poor rider rating, but rather the fact that a team of Uber employees scrolled through your Facebook photos and thought that you might just be out to get them. Which, after this latest news, we imagine more officials will be.