Uber's secret is out - it avoids certain customers

Data collected about agents of regulatory authorities is used by Greyball to mark them. But Uber says the program mainly denies ride requests to fraudulent users who violate its terms of service and include opponents who collude with officials on sti
Data collected about agents of regulatory authorities is used by Greyball to mark them. But Uber says the program mainly denies ride requests to fraudulent users who violate its terms of service and include opponents who collude with officials on sting operations.PHOTO: REUTERS

Greyball software used to deny rides to regulators in some nations

NEW YORK • Uber has acknowledged the use of a secret software to steer drivers away from trouble, including sting operations by local authorities to catch lawbreakers.

In the latest in a streak of damaging news for the ride-sharing giant, Uber came forward about its Greyball software after the New York Times (NYT) reported that it was aimed at deceiving the authorities in markets around the world.

According to an Uber statement, the tool was used in cities where it was not banned from operating.

The main intent, it added, was to protect drivers from disruption by competitors using the smartphone application to interfere, rather than summon legitimate rides.

UNSCRUPULOUS

Uber clearly lost its moral compass if it ever had one.

ENTREPRENEUR AND JOURNALIST JOHN BATTELLE, in a Twitter post referring to the Greyball news.

"This program denies ride requests to fraudulent users who are violating our terms of service," an Uber spokesman said in an e-mail reply to an Agence France-Presse inquiry. "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 the program was used in locations where drivers feared for their safety, and "rarely" to avoid law enforcement.

The NYT report, which said Greyball was used in several countries, cited interviews with unnamed current and former employees.

The report said Greyball was part of a broader program created to reveal people trying to use Uber in "violation of terms of service" and had the blessing of the company's legal team. The program raised ethical and potential concerns, and had been a closely guarded secret in Uber's toolbox as it expanded around the world, clashing with regulators and traditional taxi groups.

Data collected about agents of regulatory authorities was used by the software to "Greyball" them, or mark them as city officials.

Greyballed officials trying to use Uber would have rides cancelled and be shown fake versions of the app, complete with maps showing icons of ghost cars appearing to be on the move.

Tactics used included identifying locations of government offices and making them off-limits with "geofences" erected in the mapping software.

Ways of figuring out which users might be regulators or police included checking whether the credit cards used for the accounts were linked to governments or police credit unions.

"Uber clearly lost its moral compass if it ever had one," entrepreneur and journalist John Battelle said in a Twitter post referring to the Greyball news.

The Greyball disclosure comes as accusations of sexism, cut-throat management and a toxic work environment have Uber trying to pull its image out of a skid as competition revs up in the on-demand ride market.

After a video surfaced showing Uber chief Travis Kalanick verbally abusing a driver for the service, he apologised this week, saying that he "must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up".

In the message to staff, he wrote: "To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement."

The incident, which circulated on social media, was another hit for the image of the global ride-sharing giant, which also faces a lawsuit contending it misappropriated Google's self-driving car technology.

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 05, 2017, with the headline 'Uber's secret is out - it avoids certain customers'. Print Edition | Subscribe