Uber uses a dubiously legal technology called 'Greyball' to avoid the law

(Image credit: DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)

Uber uses a dubiously legal technology called "Greyball" to block authorities and law enforcement officials who might be investigating the company from hailing a ride, The New York Times reports. Uber has used the method — part of a program called VTOS, or "violation of terms of service" — for year in cities like Paris, Boston, and Las Vegas, four current and former Uber employees said.

The New York Times detailed an example of what "Greyballing" looks like in practice:

… Uber had just started its ride-hailing service in Portland without seeking permission from the city, which later declared the service illegal. To build a case against the company, officers like [Erich] England posed as riders, opening the Uber app to hail a car and watching as the miniature vehicles on the screen wound their way toward him.But unknown to Mr. England and other authorities, some of the digital cars they saw in their Uber apps were never there at all. The Uber drivers they were able to hail also quickly canceled. That was because Uber had tagged Mr. England and his colleagues — essentially Greyballing them as city officials — based on data collected from its app and through other techniques. Uber then served up a fake version of its app that was populated with ghost cars, to evade capture. [The New York Times]

Officials can be singled out by Uber in multiple ways, including by creating a "geofence" around authorities' offices and Greyballing anyone who frequently opened and closed the app in that region. Uber also uses credit card information to figure out if a user is tied to an institution, such as a police credit union. When officials, in sting operations, would buy cell phones to create new Uber accounts, "Uber employees went to that city's local electronics stores to look up device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones on sale, which were often the ones bought by city officials, whose budgets were not sizable," the Times writes.

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In a statement, Uber told the Times: "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." But Dylan Rivera, a Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman, said: "We take any efforts to undermine our efforts to protect the public very seriously." Read the full report here.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at TheWeek.com. She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.