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Inside Greyball, Uber's Secretive Tool Used to Trick the Cops

Published On 03/03/2017 Published On 03/03/2017
iStock/Cole Saladino

News broke today that Uber has been evading law enforcement in many of its locations with a system that -- depending on the arc of your moral compass -- you might call devious or ingenious. It's called Greyball and it all sounds like the closest thing Uber can possibly get to the creepy privacy-pushing lines of NSA wire-tapping. Here's what we know.

Uber used it to trick law enforcement

This week's New York Times report goes into detail about one of many sting operations that were thwarted by Greyball. It worked over and over and over again, though an Uber spokersperson claimed that it was only used against law enforcement rarely, the Times report describes a systematic approach toward identifying, labeling, and diverting law enforcement from Uber drivers in markets where Uber wasn't welcome. 

If a "Greyballed" official attempts to hail an Uber cab as part of a sting operation, the app would immediately cancel the ride hail. The company would then display a fake version of the app to the "Greyballed" phone, complete with ghost cars that don't exist.

This is how Uber justified its use of the program:  "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."

The company line: This is to protect drivers

So far, Uber maintains it did this to defend drivers from entrapment or even violence -- despite the fact that it's come under fire several times over the last few years for doing just the opposite for its drivers. Uber says it deployed Greyball and its wider program under the "violation of terms of service" (VTOS) to defend against groups like taxi unions looking to undermine the company or even harm its drivers. In places like Paris, where the tension between Uber and taxi drivers resulted in violence and Courtney Love tweets comparing the city to Baghdad, ghost cars were used hide Uber drivers from retribution. Greyballing's use has definitely grown beyond that, however.   

Greyballing isn't Uber's only tactic

The company also used the location information of suspected regulators as well as credit card information known to belong to institutions like police unions to identify potential sting operations. If the company couldn't verify officer identities, it'd cross-reference with social media accounts and check things through there. It would also counteract officers using cheap mobile devices by sending employees to local electronics stores to look up the devices of the cheapest phones on sale.

Believe it or not: It's probably not strictly illegal

Uber is a multi-billion-dollar company with a CEO who is prone to cursing out his own drivers and telling them they don't have the capacity to take responsibility for their actions, and then apologizing for how bad a look that was. That's after it's come under a ton of scrutiny in this year alone for stuff like a culture of sexual harassment and a documented history of confrontations with regulators, taxi unions and its own drivers. In light of all of this, however devious all of the company may sound, it's not stupid. Greyball was cleared by Uber's lawyers and so -- for now -- it might be safe.

We'll see what tomorrow brings.

Eric Vilas-Boas is a writer and editor at Thrillist. Follow him @e_vb_.

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