Uber says it’s banning the use of a software technique that company employees reportedly used to identify and block regulators in the United States and overseas who were attempting to enforce local taxi laws.

The company’s announcement on Wednesday came six days after the New York Times exposed the existence of the technique, involving software called Greyball.

The paper detailed how Greyball was used as part of a wide-ranging effort to identify local officials in jurisdictions where the company was not authorized to operate and then thwart their enforcement efforts.

The Times, which based its account on information from four former and current Uber employees, said the company went to great lengths to detect accounts that might be associated with regulators. Those measures included monitoring users who frequently opened and closed the Uber app near government buildings, examining users’ credit card information and social media profiles, and even trying to identify cellphones that officials had bought in large quantities as part of sting operations.

Once suspected regulators were identified, the Times said, the Greyball software would respond to their ride requests by serving up a fake version of the Uber app that would show that no cars were available or display a fleet of ghost cars that would never arrive. In the event a ride request was answered by a real Uber driver, the company would intervene to cancel the trip.

The company said in a statement in response to last week’s Times story that greyballing had been used to protect drivers against physical harm, to foil competitors seeking to disrupt its operations, and against “opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers.”

Uber’s statement Wednesday, issued by Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan, expanded on that explanation but did not explicitly acknowledge that it was Uber’s policy to use the technique against regulators.

“We have started a review of the different ways this technology has been used to date,” Sullivan wrote. “In addition, we are expressly prohibiting its use to target action by local regulators going forward. Given the way our systems are configured, it will take some time to ensure this prohibition is fully enforced.”

The Times reported that Uber has targeted regulators in Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, among other cities, as well as a litany of countries that include Australia, China, Italy and South Korea. Officials in two jurisdictions — Portland, Oregon, and the Netherlands — have called for an investigation of Uber’s greyballing program.

Has Uber’s use of greyball to beat regulators been legal? Here’s what the Times offered on that question last week:

Outside legal specialists said they were uncertain about the legality of the program. Greyball could be considered a violation of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or possibly intentional obstruction of justice, depending on local laws and jurisdictions, said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University who also writes for The New York Times.

“With any type of systematic thwarting of the law, you’re flirting with disaster,” Professor Henning said. “We all take our foot off the gas when we see the police car at the intersection up ahead, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But this goes far beyond avoiding a speed trap.”

  • hello

    Where are the jails and fines?


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Email Dan at: dbrekke@kqed.org

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