Uber Technologies Inc has for years engaged in a worldwide program to deceive authorities in markets where its low-cost ride-hailing service was resisted by law enforcement or, in some instances, had been outright banned.
The program, involving a tool called Greyball, uses data collected from the Uber app and other techniques to identify and circumvent officials. Uber used these methods to evade the authorities in cities such as Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, and in countries like Australia, China, Italy and South Korea.
Greyball was part of a broader program called VTOS, short for “violation of terms of service,” which Uber created to root out people it thought were using or targeting its service improperly. The VTOS program, including the Greyball tool, began as early as 2014 and remains in use, predominantly outside the US.
Greyball was approved by Uber’s legal team.
Greyball and the broader VTOS program were described to the New York Times by four current and former Uber employees, who also provided documents. The four spoke on the condition of anonymity because the tools and their use are confidential and because of fear of retaliation by the company.
Uber’s use of Greyball was recorded on video in late 2014, when Erich England, a code enforcement inspector in Portland, Oregon, tried to hail an Uber car downtown as part of a sting operation against the company.
At the time, Uber had just started its ride-hailing service in Portland without seeking permission from the city, which later declared the service illegal. To build a case against the company, officers like England posed as riders, opening the Uber app to hail a car and watching as miniature vehicles on the screen made their way toward the potential fares.
However, unknown to England and other authorities, some of the digital cars they saw in the app did not represent actual vehicles, and the Uber drivers they were able to hail also quickly canceled. That was because Uber had tagged England and his colleagues — essentially Greyballing them as city officials — based on data collected from the app and in other ways. The company then served up a fake version of the app populated with ghost cars, to evade capture.
“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,” Uber said in a statement.
Uber, which lets people hail rides using a smartphone app, operates multiple types of services, including a luxury Black Car offering in which drivers are commercially licensed. The Uber service that many regulators have had problems with is the lower-cost version, known in the US as UberX.
UberX essentially lets people who have passed a cursory background check and vehicle inspection become Uber drivers quickly. Many cities have banned the service and declared it illegal. The company has encountered legal problems over UberX in cities like Austin, Texas, Philadelphia and Tampa, Florida, as well as internationally. Eventually, agreements were reached under which regulators developed a legal framework for the low-cost service.
That approach has been costly, with Uber generally picking up tickets on the drivers’ behalf. This is where the VTOS program and the use of the Greyball tool came in.
When Uber moved into a new city, it appointed a general manager to lead the charge. This person, using various technologies and techniques, would try to spot enforcement officers. In all, there were at least a dozen signifiers in the VTOS program that Uber employees could use to assess whether users were regular new riders or likely to be city officials.
At least 50 to 60 people inside Uber knew about Greyball, and some had qualms about whether it was ethical or legal. Greyball was approved by Uber’s legal team, led by the company’s general counsel Salle Yoo.
Ryan Graves, an early hire who became senior vice president of global operations and a board member, was also aware of the program.
Yoo and Graves did not respond to requests for comment.
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