After a difficult start to 2017, ride-hailing service Uber was revealed to have used a program to identify and avoid officials in places where the company was banned from operating. Uber used a tool called Greyball, which collected data to tag and avoid authorities investigating the service in cities such as Boston, Paris, and Las Vegas, as well as in Australia, China, and South Korea.
Greyball was part of a broader program called “violation of terms of service” or VTOS, created by Uber to identify people who were using the service improperly. Greyball was approved by Uber’s legal team and has been in use since 2014, when it was recorded on video by a code enforcement officer in Portland, Oregon. VTOS and Greyball were also described to the New York Times by current, as well as former employees of the ride-hailing service, speaking anonymously.
The incident in Portland occurred after Uber began operating without getting permission from the city. The service was later made illegal, and Portland used enforcement officers, sometimes conducting sting operations posing as riders, to build a case against the company. The officers would hail rides and observe the cars indicated in the Uber app on their phone screen. However, Uber was using faking the information displayed on the app, showing cars that did not really exist, after tagging enforcement officers using other data it had collected. Officers would often find that their Uber rides quickly canceled when they had hailed them.
These users had been tagged or “Greyballed,” using clues from social media and other online sources. If a driver picked up someone tagged this way, Uber would sometimes call them with instructions to end the ride.
The revelations come after a troubling month for Uber, which included reports of a corporate culture that promotes widespread sexual harassment, a boycott campaign claiming Uber had undermined a taxi strike targeting Trump’s travel ban, and the emergence of a video in which CEO Travis Kalanick argued with an Uber driver over fares.
In a statement, Uber defended its Greyall program, saying that it “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.”
Others took a dimmer view of the ethics and legality behind Uber’s program.
Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, said in a statement “I am very concerned that Uber may have purposefully worked to thwart the city’s job to protect the public.”