Uber Greyball: How Ride Service Evades Authorities By Using Secret Technology

John Leuven

Ride-sharing service Uber has found success in a lot of cities around the world. Of course, it would not be surprising to hear that their services are still deemed illegal, or are outright banned in some locales. However, the company apparently had ways of secretly getting around this. It has been revealed recently that the service has been using a "secret" program called Greyball to try and evade authorities.

According to Reuters, Uber has confirmed that they have been using the "secret tool" Greyball for years to avoid authorities in locations where services such as theirs would be faced with resistance from local law enforcement. It does this in several ways.

For one, Greyball can deceive authorities by displaying "ghost" Uber cars on its app, or showing that there are no cars available at all. Needless to say, this can confuse law enforcement officials who aim to ticket or impound Uber cars. The program can also cancel or ignore rides hailed from a location if it suspects that the service is a sting operation meant to trap divers.

Uber engineers also included several "tactics" which would support Greyball's other functions. Among these is the ability to look up law enforcement officials on social media, also to obtain their mobile numbers and what phone models they own. Apparently, this data can be studied to identify which phone brands law enforcement officers will most likely buy and use, according to reports.

The New York Times imparted details of these functions in action. They report, for example, that in late 2014 a certain Erich England tried to get a ride from Uber in a potential sting operation. Mr. England is a code enforcement officer serving in Portland, Oregon.

Uber services in the city of Portland were declared illegal at the time, but they still operated without permission. Officers like England hail cars to observe the drivers and eventually build a case against them.

Unbeknownst to England and the rest of the Portland authorities, cars that show up in the app were not even real cars. What's more, cars that they actually hailed successfully were then immediately canceled by the progam. This was because England (and presumably his colleagues) had already been tagged by Greyball as city officials. Uber then served them with a fake version of the app that shows the "ghost" cars.

The report emphasized how these practices have helped propel Uber's popularity in more than 70 countries, with a company value that is estimated to reach $70 billion. However, practices like these were "skirting" some obvious ethical boundaries, authorities and regulators said. The Times reported that even some of Uber's employees who knew about Greyball are already troubled by its implications.

These procedures have also caused elaborate measures to be applied in large-scale sting operations. Officials have been known to buy multiple phones just to circumvent the tagging feature. Uber employees would, in turn, check out electronics stores for cheap phone models to learn which of them would be more likely bought by authorities.

In their defense, Uber has stated that Greyball exists to protect their interests.

"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."

"I am very concerned that Uber may have purposefully worked to thwart the city's job to protect the public," Wheeler said.

[Featured Image by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]