Update, March 9, 2017
Uber Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan on Tuesday addressed the use of “greyball” technology in a company blog post, and said that going forward, the tool will not be used to target local officials.
Here's the full statement:
We wanted to give everyone an update on “greyballing.” This technology is used to hide the standard city app view for individual riders, enabling Uber to show that same rider a different version. It’s been used for many purposes, for example: the testing of new features by employees; marketing promotions; fraud prevention; to protect our partners from physical harm; and to deter riders using the app in violation of our terms of service.
We have started a review of the different ways this technology has been used to date. In addition, we are expressly prohibiting its use to target action by local regulators going forward. Given the way our systems are configured, it will take some time to ensure this prohibition is fully enforced. We’ve had a number of organizations reach out for information and we will be working to respond to their inquiries once we have finished our review.
Original story, published March 3, 2017, follows.
Amid intense scrutiny of its leadership and company culture, The New York Times is now reporting that since 2014, Uber has been collecting data from its app to tag users that the company believed to be using or “targeting its service improperly.”
In particular, Uber has tagged law enforcement officials who downloaded the app in areas where the embattled ride-hailing service was banned so that it would be a step ahead of those trying to catch it breaking the law.
The system the company uses to do this is called Greyball, and it is a part of its larger VTOS or “violation of terms of service” program. Uber’s general counsel and legal team approved the program, and according to the Times, roughly 50 people at the company knew about it.
Times reporter Mike Isaac interviewed four current and former Uber employees under conditions of anonymity, who described the ways in which the company would identify a user as someone who might be a member of law enforcement. Uber would search social media profiles, determine whether a credit card was linked to a police credit union or keep a tally of the least expensive mobile device models available, based on the assumption that they could have been purchased for a sting operation.Related: In About-Face, Uber Will Apply for California Self-Driving Car Permit
“When a tagged officer called a car, Uber could scramble a set of ghost cars inside a fake version of the app for that person, or show no cars available at all,” Isaac reported. “If a driver accidentally picked up an officer, Uber occasionally called the driver with instructions to end the ride.”
Entrepreneur reached out to Uber for comment and the company responded with a press statement that it also gave to the New York Times.
In the statement, Uber characterized the program as one that is used to protect its drivers. “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.”