Uber Greyball tool: Here’s how the company avoided law enforcement

Uber's 'Greyball' tool was used to avoid law enforcement authorities, especially in newer markets

By: Tech Desk | Updated: March 4, 2017 10:54 am
Uber, Uber Greyball, Uber Greyball tool, What is Uber Greyball, How did Uber use Greyball, What is Greyball tool, Uber sexual harassment, Uber scandals Uber’s ‘Greyball’ tool was used to avoid law enforcement authorities, especially in markets where the cab-hailing service had just launched. (Source: Reuters)

Uber, which is facing criticism over rampant sexual harassment at workplace, has a new problem on its hands. According to a New York Times report, Uber’s ‘Greyball’ tool was used to avoid law enforcement authorities, especially in markets where the cab-hailing service had just launched, and there were no regulations for it with officials struggling to come up with rules for the service.

Essentially the Greyball tool collects data from the app to avoid officials who were “trying to clamp down on the ride-hailing service,” notes the report. The tool was used in cities like Boston, Paris, Las Vegas, and even in Australia, China and South Korea, and predominantly in markets outside of the United States.

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Uber has faced massive protests in Paris, and regulatory challenges in South Korea and China. In 2015, Uber was forced to shut down in South Korea after the government banned the service in May, though the company tried to restart its services towards the end of 2015. The service also faced regulatory challenges in India, where it was briefly banned in several cities.

Also read: Uber’s ‘Greyball’ draws ire for blocking government stings

So what is Greyball? Essentially it is a tool used to avoid government officials who were trying to conduct a ‘sting’ operation around Uber and its drivers. Uber would figure out if officials were trying to hail a cab, and then show them a digital map with fake cars. These customers would be ‘greyballed’, and usually their rides would be cancelled by the driver.

But as the New York Times report point out, Greyball is totally within Uber’s “Violation of Terms of Services,” and was known for being used since 2014. New York Times was shown documents around ‘Greyball’ by four former Uber employees who requested anonymity.

Uber, Uber Greyball, Uber Greyball tool, What is Uber Greyball, How did Uber use Greyball, What is Greyball tool, Uber sexual harassment, Uber scandals One of Uber’s self-driving cars. (Source: AP )

The report points out how the tool was first used in 2014 to block out a code enforcement officer in Portland, and that later Uber was ‘Greyballing’ other city officials as well by using data. What is disturbing according to the NYT report is that Uber “served up a fake version of the app, populated with ghost cars, to evade capture,” to these ‘Greyballed’ customers.

Uber has in a statement said Greyball is to “enforce violations of its terms of service agreement that customers accept when they sign up to use the app.” But it admits that Greyball can be used to block officials.

Uber’s statement reads, “This program denies ride requests to fraudulent 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.” So yes, Uber had a whole tool just to avoid officials who could have cracked down on the service.

Read more: Uber to seek DMV permit to restart self-driving car services in California

While Uber is unlikely to face any action over this particular tool, the company’s image will take another battering with this latest report. Uber’s scandals have hit the headlines for the last few months.

For starters, a blogpost by Susan Fowler which went viral has raised questions about the kind of work culture at Uber, where sexual harassment complaints are routinely ignored. Fowler has now alleged that Uber has hired a law firm to investigate her; Uber claims it is only investigating Fowler’s claim. Fowler’s wasn’t the only post that highlighted the sexual harassment problem at Uber.

Another employee who had used the pseudonym Amy Vertino, wrote about the problem on Medium. Her blogpost highlighted how one of the executives at Uber sexually harassed, publicly humiliated her, while the HR and senior management did nothing.

Uber on Friday also reported that Ed Baker who was their vice president of product and growth had resigned. According to a Recode report, Baker was seen “making out” with a colleague at a company party.

Then Uber’s SVP Amit Singhal, who was previously at Google, was asked to resign because he didn’t disclose that he had left the search giant over a sexual harassment claim. Uber’s also faced a #DeleteUber campaign where over 200,000 accounts were deleted by customers.

Finally, Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick was caught on a camera in an confrontation with an Uber driver.  The driver was talking about falling wages to the Uber CEO, but Kalanick told the guy that it was not Uber’s fault, and he should not blame the company. Kalanick later apologised and said he will ‘try and grow up.’

But the long list of scandals that are unveiling at Uber, it is clear the company has a massive problem at its hands.

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