Uber Evaded Authorities In Multiple Cities With Secret, Potentially Illegal 'Greyball' System

Posted March 04, 2017

That operation is called "violation of terms of service" or VTOS, which addresses everything from competitors looking to disrupt Uber's operations to law enforcement looking to catch violators of government taxi regulations.

Uber isn't denying the existence of the program.

Just how did Uber decide who was worthy of being "greyballed?"

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The Upstate Transportation Association, a nonprofit representing the taxi industry and other transportation services in upstate NY, said in a Tweet on Friday, "There is reason to believe that Uber has used its anti-law enforcement technology in the Hudson Valley, where many illegal trips have already been reported". Uber has previously admitted that its app doesn't necessarily show the accurate locations of its drivers' cars.

The tool would cancel rides summoned by those who were tagged, and populate the app with spoofed cars that weren't actually on the road in the city to deceive the sting operators and allow drivers to continue to operate and evade being reprimanded.

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.

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It's not all necessarily nefarious, the Times adds; in certain other nations, greyballing users could protect Uber drivers, who have been the target of violence from taxi workers in those regions. The company also noted users who frequently opened and close the app, which it believed indicated could be activity from government agencies.

The VTOS program and the Greyball tool used techniques like looking at a user's credit card information and seeing if it was tied to an institution, such as a police credit union, to identify authority figures, according to the report. 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". And according to The New York Times' sources, even some internal members of Uber's team were uncertain whether it was ethical or even legal.

If all of the programs failed and a driver accidentally picked up a member of law enforcement hailing a ride, Uber would call the user directly and provide them with directions on how to terminate the ride.

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