Daily Management Review

Uber is put under investigation for Greyball


05/08/2017


The US Department of Justice launched a criminal investigation against Uber for using the Greyball program to avoid inspections in regions where the provider had not yet obtained a license. Greyball analyzed personal data of taxi customers to determine if they belonged to law enforcement, and in case of a positive result sent them non-existent cars that were displayed in the application only.



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The US Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the taxi call service Uber Technologies for providing drivers with software that helped them hide from control authorities in areas where Uber did not receive permission to conduct the business, writes Reuters. 

Uber has already admitted to using Greyball. The program helped drivers recognize and avoid law enforcement officials who were trying to stop the company in areas where its service has not yet been approved, such as Portland or Oregon. The authorities of Portland have allowed Uber in their state in 2015; before that the company used Greyball there to avoid inspections.

Uber banned Greyball after The New York Times told about this program in March. Then the company explained use of the program by the need to check requests for machines for false calls, as well as creating additional protection for drivers. The NYT’s article caused a flurry of negative criticism towards Uber.

The criminal investigation is at an early stage, sources said, and a prospect of anyone being charged is currently unclear. Representatives of Uber and the Justice Ministry declined to comment on the criminal investigation. Uber has already received a court request from a grand jury from Northern California to provide documents on how this software worked, who developed it and how it was used.

Greyball allowed to mark some users in such a way that their smartphones displayed slightly different from the official version of the application Uber. As previously reported by the company, it hid or changed real location of cars in some circumstances, such as when there was a threat to the driver’s safety or just to test new functions.

Greyball was part of a larger digital Uber system called VTOS, which analyzed information of credit cards and mobile devices of users, such as location to try to predict whether the car call is real or false, Reuters was told by current and former employees of the company.

The technology was used to deal with scammers, as well as to ensure security, says Uber. In the event that the program identified a call as false, the application showed the user false information, and no one came for the taxi customer in the end, the employees said.

However, as Uber explained, Greyball technology could also be used against law enforcement officials who intended to fine drivers, arrest and evacuate cars, or otherwise interfere with the company's operations in states where it was not allowed.

The system analyzed credit card data of the taxi’s customer in order to find out whether it was connected to a credit cooperative, the service used by the police. Greyball also checked the user’s pages on social networks, which in many cases helped to establish their belonging to law enforcement agencies.

After NYT told about Greyball, regulators who could not catch Uber on violation in places where its activities were banned accused the company of obstructing the investigation. Representatives of the Department of Transportation in Portland determined that with Greyball helped Uber avoid checks by 16 representatives of the regulator – the company constantly sent them non-existent cars. This happened until December 2014, in 2015 Uber received a work permit in Portland.

Uber confirmed that using Greyball technology in December 2014, when the service operated in Portland without a license. The company motivated this by "high concern about financial situation of its fellow drivers".

source: reuters.com






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