FBI Reportedly Investigating Uber For Spying On Lyft, Others

Image courtesy of Elliott Brown

For about two years, Uber allegedly used a tool dubbed “Hell” to keep an eye on Lyft and other rivals, while also trying to lure away their drivers. This program caught the attention of federal law enforcement, who are now reportedly investigating whether Hell crossed any legal lines. 

This is according to the Wall Street Journal and its “people familiar with the matter,” who say that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing Uber’s use of Hell.

A rep for Uber confirmed to the WSJ that the ride-hailing company is “cooperating” with the agencies, but did not provide additional details.

Consumerist has reached out to Uber and the investigating parties for more information. We’ll update this post when we hear back.

What Is “Hell”?

The program, which was reportedly in use from 2014 to 2016, was first disclosed by tech website The Information [subscription required] in April, but Uber has not yet publicly released details of the software.

“Hell” allegedly let Uber’s top executives and a handful of data scientists track the availability and location of Lyft drivers in a given area, as well as track which of its drivers also drove for Lyft.

This software reportedly worked by creating fake Lyft driver accounts, and staging them at various locations around the city. That positioning let Uber build up a grid view of the whole city and all the Lyft drivers within it.

Uber would purportedly use this information to refocus its efforts to beef up its own services in certain areas that had a large Lyft presence. The company also began targeting specific drivers to entice them to drop Lyft by offering bonuses.

A Few Issues

There are several problems with the system, however. For instance, creating a fake Lyft account is a violation of the company’s terms of service, opening Uber up to claims including breach of contract, unfair business practices, misappropriation of trade secrets, and violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The WSJ reports that investigators are looking into these claims and whether or not Uber’s use of “Hell” constituted unauthorized access of a computer.

Just Another Investigation

A probe into “Hell” isn’t the only inquiry into the ride-hailing company’s allegedly sneaky ways.

The company has also been accused of using several types of software, including “God view” and “Greyball” to track users and otherwise keep an eye on everyone who uses its apps.

The WSJ reports that regulators in California are investigating Uber’s “Greyball” program that allowed drivers to avoid local transportation authorities.

Back in June, reports surfaced that the Federal Trade Commission had opened an inquiry into Uber’s privacy practices, including its handling of customer data.

Although the sources didn’t specify what the FTC staff was looking into, Uber’s handling of customer data and its tracking of users has come under scrutiny in the past. For instance, in April, reports suggested that Uber tracked iPhones even after the app was deleted.

That allegation came nearly two years after the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the FTC urging the agency to investigate a new privacy policy from the company. The group wanted the FTC to look into a portion of the policy that allowed it to use a rider’s location information to track where they are even when the app is running in the background.

That concern came back to the forefront late last year when the company changed its location settings requiring users to allow the app to continue following them for five minutes after a ride ends. Uber announced in late August that it would finally let users opt out of having their location tracked after their ride was over.

Also last month, it was revealed that the U.S. Justice Department is in the first stages of investigating whether managers at the company ran afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that prohibits companies and their employees from bribing foreign officials in the course of doing business.