Uber Promises To Stop Using No-Longer-Secret Tool To Avoid The Law

Image courtesy of Uber

After being outed for using a tool, dubbed “Greyball,” to avoid being caught by police and taxi regulators in cities where it wasn’t authorized to operate, Uber has promised to put an end to the controversial practice.

A recent New York Times article pulled back the curtain on Greyball, which the company had reportedly been using for years to identify passengers who could get Uber into trouble.

Uber used a wealth of data collected from a number of different sources to identify likely regulators and shunt them over to the Greyball version of Uber instead, a parallel system deliberately populated with fake “ghost” cars that couldn’t answer hails or give rides, because they don’t exist.

Greyball is part of a bigger program Uber “Violation of Terms of Service,” or VTOS. At the time the Times ran its report, Uber said, “This program 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.”

The news that Uber was deliberately avoiding the law in places where its service isn’t legal did not sit well with any of those places, either in the U.S. or abroad. Officials in Portland, OR and the European Union have both called for investigations, the NYT now reports. And as a result of all that, Uber has promised to stop using Greyball to avoid regulators.

The company’s chief security officer issued a statement Wednesday saying the Uber would review of how the technology had been used.

“We are expressly prohibiting its use to target action by local regulators going forward,” he wrote in a company blog post. “Given the way our systems are configured, it will take some time to ensure this prohibition is fully enforced.”

The Times then asked why Uber couldn’t enforce the prohibition immediately, but Uber decided to answer.

The news about Greyball has been just one of many very public hits Uber has taken in the few short months of 2017 so far.

In January, the #DeleteUber campaign swept social media after users felt the company was trying to break a New York taxi driver strike related to the immigration ban executive order.

Then in February, Uber was sued by drivers for underpaying, and by Google for stealing trade secrets. Also in February, an explosive blog post alleging a culture of sexism and discrimination at Uber HQ went viral.

That was followed by an incident early this month where Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was caught on tape arguing with and cursing at an Uber driver, footage which led to Kalanick issuing a public statement saying, ” I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.”