Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Uber Used Secret Greyball Tool to Deceive Authorities

As Yahoo is to stories of insecure user data, Uber is to stories of grotesque violations of privacy and regulation. But this is really something else. Mike Isaac has the scoop for the New York Times:

Uber has for years engaged in a worldwide program to deceive the authorities in markets where its low-cost ride-hailing service was being resisted by law enforcement or, in some instances, had been outright banned.

The program, involving a tool called Greyball, uses data collected from the Uber app and other techniques to identify and circumvent officials. Uber used these methods to evade the authorities in cities such as Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, and in countries like Australia, China, Italy and South Korea.

Greyball was part of a broader program called VTOS, short for “violation of terms of service,” which Uber created to root out people it thought were using or targeting its service improperly. The VTOS program, including the Greyball tool, began as early as 2014 and remains in use, predominantly outside the United States. Greyball was approved by Uber’s legal team.

I get the no-holds-barred “disruption” strategy engrained into so many tech startups, but the extent of their cavalier disregard for basic regulations is, frankly, unnecessary. And, it should be said, dangerous.

I’ll give you one example: when Uber wanted to begin testing its self-driving cars, it started in Pittsburgh with some onerous demands from the city. When they expanded to San Francisco later in the year, they couldn’t be bothered to apply for a permit. Then, late last year, a self-driving Uber ran a red light in San Francisco. The company claimed that a human driver was in control at the time and made an error, but it was revealed last week that the car was, indeed, in autonomous mode at the time. A permit likely wouldn’t have prevented the incident, but it would have allowed the city some authority to regulate the use of Uber’s autonomous vehicles.

Uber is now, at last, applying for a permit, but that’s only after they endangered the public and caused considerable damage to their reputation.