2017 has been a tough year for Uber. Many executives have left for an array of reasons, complaints of sexual harassment, and a video of the CEO arguing with a driver have surfaced. This is beyond the ‘business as usual’ of getting banned from countries like Denmark and Italy. Uber’s exponential growth/ is no secret and whilst the company has been key in transforming the taxi business in to ‘ride hailing’, it does come with its fair share of criticism. However, a secret software named ‘Greyball’ that stops law officials getting an Uber has to be a conspiracy theory right? Well apparently not.
One of the major issues Uber has come across can be noted as ‘self-inflicted’. It has faced heavy criticism for operating in specific cities without the required approval. Facing a mixed reaction from the authorities, in some cases it has proven successful whilst in others it hasn’t. Either way, the law in most cases, provided Uber time to fight the cases and meanwhile keep running operations for years before being given the green light or being told to close down the shop. Recently however, it has come to light that Uber has been using a bespoke software termed ‘Greyball’ to potentially avoid law officials trying to gather evidence against the firm.
The news came to light in early March 2017, when the New York Times broke the story. According to the report, Uber had used the technique for years in cities including Paris and Las Vegas, among many others. The software was part of a ‘violations of terms of service’ (VTOS) program which aided the company in identifying individuals / accounts which the company thought were using its service contrary to expectations, according to Uber.
How Greyball Worked?
The software which may have been in use since 2014, was approved by the legal team. It worked in a clever way and hence remained undetected. The software checked credit card information, social profiles and more to profile those users it perceived to be related to law enforcement / council officials, and who could be a potential threat to Uber operations. Upon identification, when the subjects ordered an Uber car through the app, Greyball showed drivers in the area which accepted the jobs only to cancel later. Little did the officials know, that Uber had been serving them a fake version of the app, showing ghost cars and fake drivers. The cancellations would eventually lead to the officials to retire at their attempts of trying to book an Uber.
A video released by Portland Officials attempting to call an Uber and being ‘greyballed’ can be seen below.
Portland Authorities have also released a report building upon their findings more recently.
After the NY Times’ piece in March, Uber has stopped using Greyball, but did state that the software was in fact to check for fraudulent drivers and protect drivers. However, that explanation hasn’t stopped the US Dept of Justice from starting a criminal investigation against Uber.
Uber has seen exponential growth worldwide. It has taken on legal systems and come out as winner. While most companies wouldn’t dare operate without the legal permissions, Uber seems to have built its entire business model around skirting the law. The matter of further creating a specialised software to evade capture of drivers and evidence, seems to show an unmatched audacity. It will be interesting to see how this story unfolds in the coming months.