The ride-hailing service, Uber, is one of the most emulated companies in the tech industry. But, in recent weeks, it has hit a wall of reality. Its bad year got worse. As reported by the New York Times, the company used an internal software to identify law enforcement officials who investigate the business practices of the company. But the situation is crazier that you thought it would be.
According to Uber, the app was designed to protect drivers but not to mislead investigators in some states where the company’s arrival generated some controversies. Launched internally as Greyball, this program was renamed to VTOS or Violations of Terms of Service.
What does Greyball do?
“The program, involving a tool called Greyball, uses data collected from the Uber app and other techniques to identify and circumvent officials who were trying to clamp down on the ride-hailing service. Uber used these methods to evade the authorities in cities like Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, and in countries like Australia, China and South Korea.” – New York Times
It was designed to deny ride requests to users who are violating the company’s terms of service. These users could be individuals who want to physically harm Uber’s drivers, competitors who want to disrupt its operations or opponents who work with officials on a secret mission to entrap drivers.
In larger investigations, authorities would buy a bunch of burner phones to evade being tracked.
“Enforcement officials involved in large-scale sting operations meant to catch Uber drivers would sometimes buy dozens of cellphones to create different accounts. To circumvent that tactic, Uber employees would go to local electronics stores to look up device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones for sale, which were often the ones bought by city officials working with budgets that were not large.”
In Silicon Valley, the company is known for its aggressive culture. The company pushed into other businesses, like food delivery and driverless cars. Even though it’s not publicly traded, it is said to be worth $60 billion.
However, the company has a controversial relationship with the government in cities where it thrived by upending regulated taxi services. The company insists that its drivers are contractors and not employees, which has proven to be controversial as it saved from paying those costly benefits.
The Greyball project is creepy but not surprising considering Uber’s reputation for its ruthlessness in pushing its services to new markets. Last month, the company faced another criticism about harboring a sexual harassment culture. A few minutes before the Times’ story came out about greyballing, another former employee of the company accused Uber of harassment and sexism. Then, its CEO was caught on camera yelling at a driver who complained about his wages at the company.
How effective is greyballing?
“To date, Greyballing has been effective. In Portland on that day in late 2014, Mr. England, the enforcement officer, did not catch an Uber, according to local reports. And two weeks after Uber began dispatching drivers in Portland, the company reached an agreement with local officials that said that after a three-month suspension, UberX would eventually be legally available in the city.”