Se­cret Uber soft­ware steers driv­ers away from trou­ble

New Straits Times - - World -

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.

JOHN BAT­TELLE

En­tre­pre­neur/jour­nal­ist

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