Well, well, well. Uber has really done it this time.
Four current and former employees of the ride-hailing giant reveal to the New York Times that for years during the company's rapid expansion it's employed a secret program to circumvent authorities in cities from Paris, France to Portland, Oregon.
The tool, dubbed "Greyball" in a name suitable for a weapon created by a James Bond villain, used data collected about users of Uber's app to identify possible law enforcement authorities or city regulators who might, for example, attempt to hail an Uber in a city where the service was operating but not yet licensed to do so.
That was the case in Portland, where a code enforcement inspector named Erich England recorded the Greyball program at work, on video, in late 2014. As part of a sting operation to catch the company running its service in the Pacific Northwest city, where it was operating without permission, England tried to call an Uber, but was served instead a decoy version of the service, a fake Uber app with cars floating onscreen that were not in fact, really available at all.
Uber's Greyball tool successfully blackballed England that seems to be how it got its name? like a legally "grey" sort of blackballing? and authorities in Portland never caught the service operating illegally. Eventually, the company negotiated legal operations there, after ginning up demand by running the service under cover of Greyball, hooking customers while evading regulators.
According to the Times, that's how the Greyball system was intended to work. As Uber expanded to new areas, signing up drivers for its low-cost UberX program at a frenzied pace and without a legal framework in which to operate, fines and litigation began to take a financial toll on the company. But with Greyball, for each new city it entered it would appoint a manager "to try to spot enforcement officers using a set of technologies and techniques."
Those tools and techniques, the Times writes, "included looking at the user’s credit card information and whether that card was tied directly to an institution like a police credit union." Other methods "involved drawing a digital perimeter, or 'geofence,' around authorities’ offices on a digital map of the city that Uber monitored."
Uber would reportedly even scour social media to "Greyball" potential enforcement officials, tagging them with a bit of code in the app's system. If, in some large-scale sting operations, authorities used dozens of phones with different accounts, "Uber employees went to that city’s local electronics stores to look up device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones on sale, which were often the ones bought by city officials, whose budgets were not sizable."
The Times says the Greyball program was part of a larger group of programs called "VTOS," or "violation of terms of service," which operated at least since 2014 to restrict the app's use both by regulators and by competitors and those who simply abused it in other ways. Uber's legal team approved the Greyball Tool, the Times writes, and 50 to 60 Uber employees were aware of its operation. It's still in use today.
Law professor Peter Henning tells the Times he thinks Greyball could be a violation of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and a potentially intentional obstruction of justice. “With any type of systematic thwarting of the law, you’re flirting with disaster,” Henning told the paper. “We all take our foot off the gas when we see the police car at the intersection up ahead, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But this goes far beyond avoiding a speed trap.”
Yet, far from apologetic, an Uber statement to the paper on the subject can be read as almost prideful.
"This program denies ride requests to users who are violating our terms of service," an Uber representative wrote, "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.”
That's echoed in the company's statement to CNBC:
Uber statement to CNBC confirms the program to side-step certain people, including those "who collude with officials on secret 'stings'" pic.twitter.com/YttXWJQafK— Steve Kopack (@SteveKopack) March 3, 2017
Uber says Greyball was part of a system of safety tactics used to protect its drivers: In cities where limousine or taxi drivers came to loathe the Uber drivers competing for their business, it could be used to keep the locations of Uber drivers secure from potentially violent altercations, the company claims.
This revelation, naturally, will buoy perceptions of Uber's disregard for regulators, safety, and even customers in a quest to serve no god but its own bottom line. That's wounded the company recently, punctuated by a boycott campaign, #deleteuber.
And Greyball is only the latest in a series of health woes for the ailing Unicorn, a company whose $70 billion valuation has made it a symbol of Silicon Valley disruption. All the better, perhaps for CEO Travis Kalanick, who "make[s] sure every year is a hard year," as he can be heard to say in a secretly recorded video released this month, in which he later engages an Uber driver in an argument.
"Thats how I roll... If it’s easy I’m not pushing hard enough," the CEO says. When the driver complains of lowered rates and unpredictable treatment, Kalanick declares that "some people don't like to take responsibility for their own shit."
Surely that's what we can expect the executive will do next.