How Uber Deceived the Authorities


(Preet) #1

As with any new technology or service, there will always be detractors that try to stop the service from entering their sphere of influence. These spheres of influence can be global, national and local. On a global scale, countries could block the use of technologies or companies within their borders. On a national scale, governments can set up rules and regulations to make it impossible for companies to find the viable economic model and on local levels, officials can harass and hassle companies from working in their spheres of influence.

Uber is a leader in facing these kinds of obstacles, some caused by interest groups fearful of Uber's influence on their sources of income, while other obstacles can be legal and legislative, dependant on the perception fo Uber by the current official. Uber, being a company and with a vision to supply a service for money, intends to be around for a long time. Uber also knows that politicians come and go as do certain officials. So Uber created a system to deal with these obstacles without going beyond the law.

Greyball

Greyball is Ubers secret weapon in dealing with official obstacles, just like Jason Bournes "treadmill" or "black briar," Uber has a secret unit that manages these initiatives.

Greyball is a set of software programs that work together to collect and collate information on all officials that are tagged as being anti-Uber. This program was developed along with the VTOS which is Violation of Terms of Service, which is the program lead, under which Greyball sits. VTOS was used to find all the people that were considered as active against Uber.

Graybill and VTOS were revealed by former Uber employees that remained anonymous due to reprisal reasons, after all, if a company will work against State appointed officials then they won't have compunctions working against unknown ex-employees.

The Greyball App

Once Greyball is activated, the targeted person that tries to use Uber app will be transferred to another source of data. This means that their Uber app will provide them with specific data that Uber sends to them. It also means that Uber can track the person's whereabouts at any given moment in time. A very powerful tool in the hands of a threatening agency.

Situations for using Greyball

In 2014 Greyball was recorded on video when used by Erich England, a Portland Oregon enforcement inspector that had been targeted by VTOS. Portland had outlawed Uber driving in its borders, so Uber, operating in Portland was effectively acting illegally. Until they could rectify the situation on a legislative level, Uber had to resort to subversive actions. That means using VTOS and Greyball in Portland.

Once VTOS had selected Erich as a target, Greyball took over. What it does is set up ghost cars on the screen of the Uber app, Uber canceled all drivers so that no one would collect the inspector and the target would see plenty of fake cares but never be picked up. This is effectively "greyballing" the target and ensures that the target cannot hail a ride and then claim that Uber was working illegally.

Greyball effectively creates a barrier between the official agency and Ube, and through careful data mining can pinpoint all agency personnel and officials and put them all in the same basket, effectively blanketing the from Uber activity. There are many ways to find out if a person might be a third party employed by an agency to act as a front, when a passenger logs into Uber, they automatically check all the data, including the credit card. If there is any suspicious activity on the credit card, such as payment to a Police union, or PI agency, then that person is targeted for being suspicious in the area that Uber is dealing with. Uber's calculation was, it is better to Greyball a thousand innocent people that let one person ruin the company's chances of serving a million people. What is termed as "Sacrificing a few for the greater good."

Legal Issues of Greyball and VTOS

Some will argue that these systems are illegal and the very use of them is an illegal act. However until these issues are moved from the state of allegation and innuendo and transferred to hard evidence, there is no proof that they exist and Uber will correctly claim them to detractions made by disgruntled employees that have spun out of control by the media and made into an urban legend.

Having stated this, Greyball does exist, and Uber doesn't shy from it, it just states that greyballing is not used for what the media claims it is used for. According to Uber, greyball was put into place to protect the drivers from law enforcement officials that target ride-share drivers out of spite. As such, they do use greyball only in places that Uber is allowed to work in and deploy it against spiteful officials, ensuring that they cannot get an Uber service.

Conclusions

Greyballing goes on daily.Uber spares no costs in finding out the phone numbers of fake passenger accounts created by officials seeking to ruin their services. They will even send teams of employees and detectives to find out which throwaway phone numbers were bought by officials that try to do a sting operation by buying up lots of phones and then creating many fake accounts.

As officials develop more and more techniques to circumvent Uber, Uber will develop more techniques to counter them. We are seeing the natural evolution of espionage and counter-espionage tactics being performed between Uber and its detractors on a daily basis.

As with any story, there are always two sides, but as with any intrigue, they always get blown out of proportion. What starts out as a minor accusation, becomes a major issue in the hands of the media. At the same time, we should not turn a blind eye to the fact, but at least keep an open mind to all the possible explanations.