How Uber Used the Secret ‘Greyball’ Feature to Evade Law Enforcement Officers

Uber App

As you probably know by now, Uber, especially the low-cost version UberX isn’t legal in all the cities or countries it operates. If you’re wondering how it manages to evade trouble in these jurisdictions, then a new report by Mike Isaac of the New York Times sheds some light.

Isaac claims that Uber has a secret feature nicknamed “Greyball” that is used internally to identify regulators so that they cannot collect evidence that the service has been breaking local laws governing taxis by posing as riders.

The feature which is part of the program called VTOS (violation of terms of service), makes use of data collected from the Uber app and other techniques such as geofencing around the government offices to identify law enforcement officials.

One technique involved drawing a digital perimeter, or “geofence,” around the government offices on a digital map of a city that Uber was monitoring. The company watched which people were frequently opening and closing the app — a process known internally as eyeballing — near such locations as evidence that the users might be associated with city agencies.

Once the user has been greyballed, the official is served a fake version of the app which shows either no cars are available or is populated with ghost cars to evade capture. You can see the feature in action in the video below, where Erich England, a code enforcement inspector in Portland, Ore, tried to hail a Uber car in a sting operation in late 2014 when the service was illegal in the city.

The Greyball feature was initially developed as a safety measure to protect drivers in some countries, where taxi companies and workers targeted and attacked new Uber drivers. But the company started using the feature when it launched UberX, the low-cost version of the service in new markets where the ability to summon a non-commercial taxi driver using private vehicles was unregulated.

This is not the first time Uber has come under scrutiny for using technology to circumvent the law or for privacy violation. Late last year, former forensic investigator Samuel Ward Spangenberg revealed in a testimony that Uber employees regularly abused the company’s “God view” feature to spy on movements of “high-profile politicians, celebrities and even personal acquaintances of Uber employees, including ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, and ex-spouses”. The God view lets them see all of the Uber users in a city and the silhouettes of waiting Uber users who have flagged cars. Uber employees could even track individual users in the God view.

Uber God View

Image credit: Forbes

Uber has issued the following statement about the Greyball feature “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.” It also told Buzzfeed that “it used Greyball in places where its service was not explicitly banned and it believed it had a right to operate”.

It may seem like an ingenious way to hack the system as local regulators can often be a nuisance for not the right reasons and the taxi industry desperately needed to be disrupted, but the problem is that such shady things are bound to get you into trouble later on.

What do you think of Uber’s use of the Greyball feature to evade authorities?

[via New York Times]