After wrapping up a February packed with negative news stories — alleged gender discrimination, the forced resignation of a top exec over old sexual harassment accusations, that video of CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with a driver over dropping fares — ride-hailing start-up Uber doesn’t seem to be starting March off on a much better foot. According to a report today from the New York Times, the company has reportedly been using a secret software, Greyball, as part of a larger program (known as VTOS, or ““violation of terms of service”) to identify, and in some cases tag and track, local authorities who might hinder business. Speaking with both current and former employees, the Times found the program had been green-lit by Uber’s legal team, and is still a part of the company’s business model today.
The VTOS program identified local officials and law-enforcement agents using a variety of data. Uber would track officials by mapping out where their official offices were, and monitoring people in those areas who frequently opened the Uber app. The company also reportedly checked credit cards for associations with official organizations, “like a police credit union,” and traced burner-cell-phone purchases for records of which phones might be registered by local police or officials.
Uber’s Greyball software was used once an official was identified. If someone the company had deemed a risk tried to hail a ride using the app, they would be shown a number of car options on the app’s map. Except, unlike for a regular Uber rider, those cars were nonexistent “ghost cars” running on a fake version of the Uber app. (Alternatively, a Greyballed rider would be shown no cars at all.) “If a driver accidentally picked up an officer, Uber occasionally called the driver with instructions to end the ride,” the New York Times reports. In short, Uber Greyballed users who might have caused trouble for the company, had they actually been able to take an Uber ride. If those people couldn’t get into cars in the first place, they’d have no evidence for complaint.
The program dates back to 2014, when Uber struggled to get off the ground in Portland, after the city deemed the service illegal. (Uber has since been legalized.) An attempted sting was thwarted when a code-enforcement inspector was unable to hail an Uber, likely because he and his colleagues had been Greyballed. According to the employees and ex-employees interviewed, the program was also used to keep drivers safe in countries — like India and France — where Uber drivers are at risk. (Traditional cab services around the world have not taken too kindly to Uber’s low rates impinging on their markets.)
Update 5:30 p.m.: An Uber spokesperson provided the following statement to Select All regarding questions about Greyball:
This program denies ride requests to fraudulent 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.