In a hot, wet kiss-off to an already terrible, horrible, no good, very bad couple months -- and a week where Uber's CEO cursed out and had to apologize to one of his drivers -- Uber got in trouble again. The latest news report from the New York Times states that the company's used its technology to deceive law enforcement agencies around the world for years, apparently.
It works like this: While places like New York, DC, or San Francisco may now be Uber hotspots, not every market loves the ride-hailing service. Some of them -- such as Paris, Boston, Las Vegas, and cities in Australia, China, South Korea, and Italy -- aren't keen on Uber taking a slice out of their taxi cab industries. Some of those markets cracked down on or even totally banned the app. One tactic authorities might deploy: posing as riders as part of sting operations to catch Uber in the wild and ticket its drivers.
Enter Greyball, an Uber program that's been nested under its broader "violation of terms of service" (VTOS) program since at least 2014. Greyball helped Uber identify undercover officers posing as riders in places like Portland -- where the Times reports Uber drivers were operating without the city's permission, prompting a crackdown. When Erich England, a code enforcement officer, attempted to use the app to hail a car, this happened, per the Times (our emphasis added):
But unknown to Mr. England and other authorities, some of the digital cars they saw in their Uber apps were never there at all. The Uber drivers they were able to hail also quickly canceled. That was because Uber had tagged Mr. England and his colleagues — essentially Greyballing them as city officials — based on data collected from its app and through other techniques. Uber then served up a fake version of its app that was populated with ghost cars, to evade capture.
...All of which, let's get this perfectly straight, sounds really, really shady. Uber's run into legal trouble like this in several cities and the Times reports that, beyond baking this functionality into their service, they also hired general managers in newly expanded regions to "try to spot enforcement officers." In addition to the Greyball method illustrated above, the Times also reports that the company would use location information to spy on users who frequently opened the app around police stations or who had credit card info that was also tied to police institutions or credit unions. The company would also use social media information to confirm or Greyball law enforcement officers, along with "at least a dozen other signifiers" at the disposal of the VTOS program.
For Uber's part -- though this seems to clearly have been an attempt to target, gaslight, and wage a counter-intelligence campaign against legal authorities around the world -- the company has claimed that it did this to protect its drivers against both violence (in places like France, India, and Kenya) and competition. Nonetheless, the Times reports that Greyball tactics eventually deployed strategically against law enforcement across five continents in more than a dozen countries.
Per this statement below, provided to the Times and echoed verbatim to Thrillist after we reached out, Uber didn't sound all that apologetic about it, either: