On Saturday, the #New York Times reported on a software program used to deceive bylaw and police officers by ride-sharing company Uber: Greyball. The firm, which was reported to have generated $5.5 billion in revenue in 2016, has received mixed receptions in cities and towns both across the United States, and around the world. Lawsuits have been brought against #uber by taxicab companies in many locales. As a result, bylaw enforcement officers, police, and others, have, at times, conducted "sting" operations against Uber, using the app to lure drivers, and then present them with costly tickets, or worse.
The #Uber Greyball program is described as a response to these sting operations, first used in 2014 or 2015. A statement issued by Uber confirms that the company used the software to protect drivers from "fraudulent requests," physical harm, competitors seeking to "disrupt operations," and "opponents who collude with officials." The program identifies certain users, "greyballing them," as falling into the categories, and subsequently provides erroneous data on their apps, including "ghost cars" to send authorities on wild goose chases.
Uber Greyball 'playbook' distributed to drivers
Speaking on CNBC, Mike Isaac described the divide between Uber and the officials of some jurisdictions, with Uber consistently claiming that it is operating "within the bounds of the law," and some authorities contending that the services offered by Uber are regulated, in many cases by taxicab bylaws, which need to be adhered to. Taxicab bylaws can vary widely from city to city, and state to state. Isaac noted the reality of Uber drivers coming "under attack" from a wide variety of sources, including competing taxicab drivers.
Mike Isaac went on to describe the existence of a "playbook" that was distributed to Uber drivers, and the company "systematically" using the Greyball program to circumvent bylaw and other officials. The NYT writer said the program was used by Uber managers in locations around the world.
Greyball allows Uber management to monitor activity of officials
Blocking bylaw-enforcement officials from Uber entirely was reported not to be the goal of Greyball; Uber executives were said to act to encourage officials to use the app as much as possible, in order to maximize the amount of information learned about their tactics, as well as the tactics of competitors. When asked if the actions of Uber stood to interest prosecutors, Mike Isaac stated that "it's really hard to tell," and that Uber Greyball continues to be used outside the United States. The journalist stated that it's possible that Uber's actions could amount to an "obstruction of justice," and noted that the decision whether or not to pursue individual cases is in the hands of state and federal prosecutors.