Uber’s “Greyball” tech is the latest in Uber scaremongering

Uber is getting negative headlines again. The latest Uber controversy? It has been revealed that the ride sharing company has been using a piece of custom software to avoid law enforcement authorities. The application, known as Greyball, doesn’t help drivers avoid police or evade capture, but it does protect them from authorities performing sting operations on unsuspecting drivers.

Uber’s “Greyball” tech is the latest in Uber scaremongering

Depending on where a user requests an Uber pickup, Greyball is designed to work out how likely that person is to be violating Uber’s terms of service and show either no available Ubers or “ghost” cars to show how busy the service currently is. Its purpose is to deceive authorities who opposed Uber in a particular city or so its drivers can operate without disruption – even in cities the company hadn’t been approved in.

Uber confirmed the existence of Greyball on Friday and claimed that the system was still in use, albeit in a lesser form than it had previously been used as the company expanded into new cities. A spokeswoman from Uber also confirmed that Greyball was only implemented to keep its drivers and app users safe from disruption by enforcement agencies.

Uber describes Greyball as a programme that “denies ride requests to fraudulent 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”.

The New York Times (via Firstpost) reports that Greyball is actively used in Boston, Paris, and Las Vegas with cities in Australia, China, Italy and South Korea also making use of the tech.

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Many have prematurely called Greyball another nail in Uber’s coffin, following regular allegations of sexual harassment and poor treatment of its drivers. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s recent video-captured outburst at an Uber driver also hasn’t helped the company’s image of late. But, as you might expect, US authorities seem to be siding against Uber over Greyball with the Portland Oregon transportation bureau spokesman claiming that Greyball was an “effort to undermine our efforts to protect the public” – which is a rather sweeping statement to use against a tool designed to help end users.

Greyball is certainly a shady way of doing business – especially if reports around Uber engineers putting together a list of city officials social media accounts, and predicting the numbers of cheap burner phones enforcement agencies might use – but it’s nothing illegal. In fact, to paint Greyball as a negative towards Uber is to totally misunderstand its customers.

While allegations of sexual harassment carry clout and worry for many Uber customers, Uber creating an programme to help avoid service disruptions is surely a bonus. People want cheap, straightforward and efficient transportation – something many other ride-sharing and private-hire taxi companies seem to be unable to satisfy.

The truth is that Uber provides a service that people want. If it has to resort to somewhat questionable – but seemingly harmless – practices to keep that service up to scratch, then it’s understandable it’ll do so. We work in a society of supply and demand: if there was no dire need for Uber’s services – and if local governments were less hostile to Uber – Greyball would never have been required.

Ultimately, though, both you and I know – Greyball-powered or not – the next time you’re out past midnight on the other side of the city, it’ll be an Uber picking you up. And that convenience doesn’t come without its (figurative) bumps in the road.

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