Authorities don’t always greet Uber with open arms when the ride-hailing company launches in a new location.
To workaround this issue, Uber has used a secretive tool called “Greyball” since 2014 to prevent authorities in cities where the service isn’t yet legal but drivers are still picking up rides.
How Greyball works:
Greyball identifies and targets certain individuals, like law enforcement officers by collecting in-app data. If those individuals try hailing an Uber, the app will either show them that no cars are available or it’ll display a mock-up of the app with fake Uber cars.
The bottom line is: make sure the unwanted individuals can’t catch a ride.
An Uber spokeswoman wrote in an email about the application: “This program 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.”
Authorities in cities where Uber isn’t legal sometimes perform sting operations where they hire Ubers and fine ticket drivers and confiscate cars. Greyball targets them because as part of the operations, police would often make non-stop attempts to hail Ubers.
The New York Times has reported on Greyball claiming it also identifies unwanted users by checking their credit card information, social media profiles and other online information.
Grey legal area:
Uber which now operates in 400 cities in more than 70 countries has a history of working in the grey areas of the law. The company often introduced products and features before getting the required permits.
Former NSA analyst and senior research scientist for global cybersecurity firm Comodo, Kenneth Geers said: “Uber is an incredibly disruptive cyber technology. So it’s not surprising that it also skirts the boundaries of legality.”
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told the The Wall Street Journal in 2013 that the company doesn’t need to beg for forgiveness. “There’s been so much corruption and so much cronyism in the taxi industry and so much regulatory capture that if you ask for permission up front for something that’s already legal, you’ll never get it,” he continued on saying
Uber says Greyball can be used to block competitors from seeing Uber cars and to keep drivers safe in situations like the taxi protests in Paris.
According to the Times, Uber has used Greyball in the US, France, Australia, China, South Korea, Italy, Kenya, India and more. Four anonymous current and former Uber employees told them about the tool, it’s estimated that around 60 people inside the company knew of the tool.
The legality of using Greyball is unclear. However, several top execs approve its use, including Sally Yoo, head legal counsel, and Ryan Graves, senior vice president of global operations.