This story started in 2014 when Uber decided to start their operations in Portland, Oregon without city permission. After a few months of operation, the City of Portland decided that ride-sharing was illegal and then claimed that Uber used "Greyball," a software tool used to help drivers evade city officials. Just this week, Uber was found of no wrongdoing, and this comes at a very important time in Uber's fight for survival.
A Quick recap from 2014
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."
Back to 2017
The Greyball software was developed by Uber for use to help drivers evade bad passengers, so claims Uber. Its main purpose was for protecting drivers from concentrated attacks by angry taxi's drivers and other transportation drivers against Uber's presence in Kenya, France, and India amongst a few of the countries that reported cases of violence against Uber drivers. In reality, it was most probably created for a number of reasons but cannot be attributed to anything but driver safety for legal and ethical reasons.
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.
Uber stated quite emphatically that "This program (Greyball) denies ride requests to users who are violating our terms of service — 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."
However, as with all "good intentions," the software found its way into the hands of more unethical purposes, such as evading law enforcement in the State of Oregon.
After a few month's battle and being subpoenaed by the City of Portland, Uber, and the city finally reached an agreement where Uber would give the City of Portland a three-month period of grace to prepare and publicize a new set of regulations that would enable ride-sharing within the City limits.
The City of Portland's case was a classic example of Uber's blitzkrieg tactics. While the City and Uber did reach an agreement and they City stated that they have no proof that Uber used the program to discriminate passengers, which is what most concerned the City officials, as well as the Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman stating that there was no proof that Uber used the program for filtering out City regulators from receiving rides.
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.
At the end of the day, this is another classic example of Uber reaching the headlines without any proof of unethical or illegal activity. While Uber is facing a lot of pressure from all over the world and having to deal with over two hundred lawsuits in the US alone, this small victory goes a long way.