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Uber has a secret program to foil law enforcement

TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2014 - Day 1
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

For years, Uber’s app has had a secret feature designed to thwart local government efforts to stop drivers from driving without a taxi license, according to the New York Times. The feature, known as “Greyballing,” blocks suspected city officials from calling drivers. When blacklisted officials logged in to Uber, they would be shown a fake map populated with cars that didn’t actually exist. If officials hailed these imaginary cars, the ride would mysteriously get canceled before they got picked up.

The Greyball program was part of a cat-and-mouse game Uber has played with officials in various cities for years. Driving an unlicensed taxicab is illegal in many cities, but Uber insisted that it was simply a market maker — connecting drivers with riders — and not subject to city taxi regulations. So officials’ only option in many cases was to enforce the law against drivers: fining them or even impounding their cars if drivers were caught picking up passengers without a license.

To prevent officials from using its own software to target drivers, Uber essentially created a special fake version of the Uber app specifically for city officials that didn’t actually allow them to get a ride. Without the resources to systematically sweep streets for unlicensed drivers, that often made it impossible for officials to enforce the law.

Uber isn’t denying the existence 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,” Uber said in a statement.

Uber went to remarkable lengths to hamper law enforcement

Reportedly, Uber managers in a particular city would identify the locations of city government offices and monitor users who used the apps in those areas. They would check users’ names against known city officials and blacklist credit cards that were “tied directly to an institution like a police credit union.”

And then there’s this:

Enforcement officials involved in large-scale sting operations to catch Uber drivers also sometimes bought dozens of cellphones to create different accounts. To circumvent that tactic, Uber employees went to that city’s local electronics stores to look up device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones on sale, which were often the ones bought by city officials, whose budgets were not sizable.

According to the Times, Uber’s “Greyballing” tactics were mostly used outside the United States, where anti-Uber enforcement efforts tended to be particularly aggressive. But it was also sometimes used in the US, including in Portland, where a 2014 video showed officials trying and failing to hail Uber riders.

The Greyball story is the latest in a string of embarrassing recent allegations against Uber. Less than two weeks ago, a female Uber engineer accused Uber of having a misogynistic culture that turned a blind eye to sexual harassment. Days later, Google’s Waymo unit sued Uber, alleging that Uber used stolen Waymo technology in its own self-driving cars. Then video surfaced of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick lecturing a driver about “responsibility” during an argument about Uber’s falling fares.

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