Uber has a secret program to foil law enforcement

Uber has a secret program to foil law enforcement

Uber uses a dubiously legal technology called "Greyball" to block authorities and law enforcement officials who might be investigating the company from hailing a ride, The New York Times reports.

"This program denies ride requests to fraudulent users who are violating our terms of service", Uber said in a statement. But, according to the report, Uber has also been using the program to prevent law enforcement from conducting sting operations or catching the service operating where it shouldn't be. It alarmed privacy watchdogs late a year ago by eliminating an iOS setting that let users grant the company access to their location only "while using" the app. Users are now forced to choose between letting Uber track their location "always" and "never".

At a minimum, these revelations could cause more problems for Uber with regulators, who might not take kindly to efforts to evade detection. While "Greyballing" was first used in new cities to muddle the locations of UberX drivers to fight local taxi competition, Uber engineers soon saw those tactics' potential use in evading law enforcement.

In recent years, many states, including MA, have passed laws to explicitly make Uber legal.

According to the Times, Portland officers like Erich England, depicted in the video, couldn't catch an Uber because they weren't really using Uber - the app had identified them and given them a "ghost version" of the app filled with fake cars.

Greyball is part of a bigger program Uber calls VTOS - for "violation of terms of service". By using a tracking tool known as Greyball.

Techniques included looking at the user's credit card information and whether that card was tied directly to an institution like a police credit union. The Greyball app was also building a virtual perimeter around authority offices and facilities in cities monitored for Uber app usage. Uber employees reportedly have used it to entertain party guests by showing them the locations of high-profile people using the app, track a journalist, and spy on ex-romantic partners.

The San Francisco-based company admitted the program existed, but said its objective was aimed at rivals and users.

Current and former Uber employees, speaking anonymously, described Greyball to the Times and provided related documents.

Ars has contacted Uber about Greyball but has not received a response. He's the second senior executive to leave the company in a week after CEO Travis Kalanick asked Amit Singhal, vice president of engineering, to resign after it came to light that he had been investigated for sexual harassment at his previous employer, Google, according to Recode.