Uber's "Greyball" tool helped company evade authorities in Portland, Paris


The ride-hailing service Uber is now ubiquitous throughout the city of Portland, but back in 2014 it was operating illegally and somehow skirting city officials trying to crack down on the company.

Greyball is part of a broader program called VTOS, shorthand for "violations of terms of service", that Uber says it developed to protect its service.

Greyballing's use has definitely grown beyond that, however. "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".

The program makes booking a ride hard for users whom Uber suspects of carrying out sting operations aimed at busting drivers in jurisdictions where its legality is unclear. But Greyball's use also came to light due to information supplied to NYT by four different Uber sources, including two current employees, who were uncomfortable with the circumstances of its use according to the newspaper. Uber identified the officials through personal information such as credit cards and social media accounts, as well as their geographic location, such as near a municipal building, according to the report.

The New York Times reported that Uber had used the tool to evade authorities in Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, and countries includes Australia, China, Italy and South Korea.

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According to the article, the tool started as a way to protect drivers from violent opponents like taxi companies and unions in other countries, and Uber told the paper that that remains the primary goal of the Greyball tool. Last month, a former Uber engineer wrote in detail about the hostile work environment she said female workers faced within the San Francisco-based company.

Cambridge Police conducted sting operations aimed at pulling over Uber drivers in 2012, before then-Governor Deval Patrick took action to clarify the company's ability to operate legally. Google's self-driving vehicle company Waymo has also filed a lawsuit against Uber over the alleged theft of trade secrets.

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.

And in Florida, Hillsborough regulators coordinated with taxi and limousine companies on an undercover operation that lured out Uber drivers so they could be assessed US$700 fines. But in its early years Uber earned a reputation for exploiting legal uncertainty over whether its service should be regulated like taxis.