Uber has been using a secret software tool to deceive the authorities in major cities around the world where its inexpensive ride-hailing service is currently banned. The tool called "Greyball" exploits data collected from the Uber app to identify and bypass undercover regulators who are trying to collect evidence of the company violating local laws governing taxis.
Greyball is part of a worldwide program called VTOS, shorthand for "violation of terms of service," which Uber claimed it developed to deny its services to people who were believed to have violated the company's terms of service. The VTOS program and the Greyball tool were approved by Uber's legal team, and have been in use since 2014.
Greyball's existence was disclosed to The New York Times by four current and former Uber employees, who also provided confidential documents containing details about Greyball and the VTOS program. Uber has used these methods to sidestep authorities in Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, among other cities, as well as in countries like Australia, China and South Korea, the Times reported.
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Although Uber has acknowledged that it has been using Greyball to circumvent regulators working with opponents to trick its drivers, the company stressed the need of the program to protect its service.
"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," Uber said in a statement.
How do VTOS and Greyball work?
One of the techniques reportedly used by Uber includes building a virtual perimeter, or "geofence," around authority offices in cities that the company monitors. It also inspects a user's credit card information to determine whether the card is somehow linked to police.
There are also instances when Uber would make its employees search social media profiles to confirm whether certain users are indeed linked to law enforcement. If anyone falls under that category, Uber would have that user tagged with a specific piece of code.
Whenever someone tagged in that manner tries to call a car, a fake version of the app would show a set of ghost cars that cannot be booked, or the app would show no cars at all.
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At least 50 Uber employees, including its general counsel Salle Yoo and senior vice president of global operations Ryan Graves, were aware of Greyball, the Times reported, adding that some of the employees who knew about the tool had questioned its legality.
Meanwhile, some outside legal specialists believe that there is an indecision regarding the legality of the program.
"Now that the existence of Greyball is known, municipalities can certainly pass ordinances to make it illegal," Phillip Hallam-Baker, vice president and principal scientist at Comodo, told International Business Times in a statement. "The advantages Uber has had up until now is that many localities did not know that the technology was being used against them, and Uber's interest in developing counter-enforcement strategies has been greater than the localities' interest in defeating them."
Hallam-Baker, however, predicted that several entrepreneurs would offer their help to municipalities "to oust Uber for a share in the ticket revenues."
How can Uber afford to skirt ethical or legal lines?
Using its app to deceive the authorities, especially where Uber is not allowed to operate, could trigger serious legal troubles for the company. But Uber, which has long broken laws and regulations in its quest to dominate the market, seems quite equipped to afford such risks.
Kenneth Geers, a senior research scientist at Comodo, hailed "greyballing" as "a good way to gain competitive advantage in today's marketplace." According to him, the cyberspace is still a poorly-governed realm, and Uber is exploiting with greyballing as an "acceptable business risk."
"Uber is an incredibly disruptive cyber technology, so it's not surprising that it also skirts the boundaries of legality," Geers said in a statement. "With a valuation of $70 billion, Uber can afford to take such chances."