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Science
06 Mar 2017

Uber confirms existence of secret program to avoid the law

A look into Uber's app for circumventing authorities

In response to a report by The New York Times, ride-sharing giant Uber confirmed that it had been using a secret program called Greyball to avoid authorities in cities where it faced resistance from law enforcement or government bans.

A spokeswoman from Uber confirmed that Greyball was still in use in several markets, although it had been considerably scaled back.

In context

A look into Uber's app for circumventing authorities
The origins of Greyball

Origins

The origins of Greyball

Greyball was put into use by as early as 2014 as part of Uber's VTOS program.

The VTOS program, an acronym for "violation of terms of service", was created to single out and screen people who were using the service improperly or targeting Uber and its drivers.

Initially created to protect Uber's drivers from unfriendly (even violent) competition, it was soon expanded.

Uber did face stiff resistance in certain places

The justification for Uber's VTOS program can be believed to be true considering that in France, India, and Kenya, taxi companies, unions, and drivers targeted and attacked Uber cars and drivers.

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Greyball

So what is Greyball?

Uber uses Greyball to identify, tag, and circumvent officials and regulators in unfriendly markets with unclear ride-sharing laws.

Officials who are "Greyballed" see "ghost" Uber cars in a fake version of the Uber app and rides are declined to them.

This prevents officials from trapping Uber drivers and from carrying out sting operations against Uber.

How does Uber "Greyball" officials?

Greyballing

How does Uber "Greyball" officials?

One method of identifying officials includes drawing a digital perimeter or a "geofence" around government buildings and monitoring the frequency with which individual users opened the app near these buildings.

Other methods include using a user's credit card information to check their background, or stalking a person on social media.

These are a few methods of identification among about a dozen.

Evidence of greyballing

There is video evidence of Greyball in use. In late 2014, Erich England, a code enforcement officer in Portland, Oregon, was Greyballed while trying to hail an Uber cab as part of a sting operation against the company.

Legality & Ethics

Is Greyballing legal?

Around 50 people inside Uber knew about Greyball, and some among them were uneasy about the legal and ethical concerns surrounding such a practice.

While legal specialists are skeptical about the legality of Greyball, it was approved by Uber's legal team led by the company's general counsel, Sally Yoo.

Mrs. Yoo did not respond to requests for comments.

Meanwhile, investigations are underway.

Uber under criminal investigation in US over 'Greyball'

06 May 2017

Uber under criminal investigation in US over 'Greyball'

Uber is facing criminal investigation in the US over its Greyball program that it uses to evade authorities, particularly in areas where it was banned or restricted.

Uber was reportedly using the secret software in Portland and Oregon, where the service was still seeking government approval to operate.

Uber used Greyball to detect officials dressed as civilians and trying to hail its cabs.

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