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Uber used data tool to avoid authorities

Since 2014  Uber has been using a program to evade authorities that were trying to crack down on its ride-hailing services.

The program used a tool called Greyball to identify potential law enforcement officials.  When Greyball found a likely suspect, Uber served up a fake version of its app populated with ghost cars.

Here’s how it worked. Greyball used data from the Uber mobile application in combination with other pieces of information to target likely enforcement agents.  One technique created a geofence around government offices on a digital map of the city. Uber noted which individuals within the targeted territory opened and closed the app frequently, making the assumption that these people were monitoring the service.

Another approach looked at the user’s credit card number to see if it was attached to a suspect financial institution, like a government employee credit union.  Uber also researched the phone numbers of cheap cell phones for sale in local electronics stores, since law enforcement agencies often bought these by the dozen for sting operations. And, of course, Uber checked the social media profiles of potential customers to ferret out law enforcement links.

When Greyball tagged a user as a potential public official, Uber could send that individual a fake version of the app that either showed ghost cars or indicated that no cars were available.  If a driver accidentally picked up an enforcement agent, Uber would instruct the driver to end the ride.

In a statement to the New York Times, Uber defended its practice: “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.”  Link to full story in The New York Times.

Image source: Uber

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