Secret Uber software steers drivers away from trouble
Uber yesterday acknowledged the use of a secret software programme to steer drivers away from trouble, including sting operations by authorities to catch lawbreakers.
In the latest in a streak of damaging news for the ride-sharing giant, Uber came forward about its “Greyball” software after a
New York Times report, which said the programme aimed to deceive authorities in markets around the world.
Uber said the tool was used in cities where it was not banned from operating, and the main intent was to protect drivers from disruption by competitors using the smartphone application to interfere instead of summon legitimate rides.
“This programme denies ride requests to fraudulent users who are violating our terms of service,” an Uber spokesman said.
“Whether that’s people aiming to harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers.”
Uber said the programme was used in locations where drivers feared for their safety, and “rarely” to avoid law enforcement.
The New York Times report, which said Greyball was used in several countries, cited interviews with current and former employees.
The report said Greyball was part of a broader programme created to reveal people trying to use Uber in “violation of terms of service” and had the blessing of the company’s legal team.
According to the report, the programme raised ethical and potential concerns, and had been a closely-guarded secret in Uber’s toolbox as it expanded around the world, clashing with regulators and taxi groups.
Data collected about agents of regulatory authorities was used by the software to “Greyball” them, or mark them as city officials, according to the Times.
Greyballed officials trying to use Uber would have rides cancelled and be shown fake versions of the app, complete with maps showing icons of ghost cars appearing to be on the move, the report said.
Tactics used included identifying locations of government offices and then making them off-limits with “geofences” erected in mapping software, according to the Times.
Ways of figuring out which users might be regulators or police included checking whether credit cards used for accounts were linked to governments or police credit unions, the report said.
“Uber clearly lost its moral compass if ever it had one,” entrepreneur and journalist John Battelle said in a Twitter post referring to the Greyball news.
The “Greyball” disclosure comes as accusations of sexism, cut-throat management and a toxic work environment hit the global ride-sharing giant.
Uber chief Travis Kalanick this week apologised, acknowledging that “I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up”, after a video showed him verbally abusing a driver for the service.
The incident was another hit for the image of Uber, which faces accusations of sexual harassment and a lawsuit contending it misappropriated Google’s selfdriving car technology.
Uber clearly lost its moral compass if ever it had one.