Uber has already been accused of using a software tool dubbed “Greyball” to avoid sidestep law enforcement officers in cities where the service wasn’t yet authorized to operate. A new investigation has concluded that Greyball was also being used in at least one city to evade detection by more than a dozen local government officials.
Reuters reports that a Portland (OR) Bureau of Transportation investigation found that when Uber began operations without permits in the city in Dec. 2014 it used Greyball to block 16 rider accounts that just happened to belong to government officials.
In all, the inquiry — which began in March — found that Uber had used the tool to block 17 rider accounts, denying 29 ride requests.
What Is Greyball?
Greyball was basically a way of identifying users who were suspected to be law enforcement or regulators.
Uber used geolocation, phone model, credit card information, user behavior (including social media profiles), and other pieces of data to create a shadow app.
When a profile fit the makeup of a law enforcement officer, Uber would send that profile to the shadow app. Here users would see “ghost” cars that couldn’t respond to requests for rides, and that obscured the locations of real cars.
Uber acknowledged the tool’s existence in March and promised to stop using the software.
“In using Greyball, Uber has sullied its own reputation,” the Portland Bureau of Transportation wrote in its report.
The service reportedly stopped using the tool in Portland around April 2015 when it received approval to operate in the city legally.
While the city has not imposed any fines or penalties against Uber related to the investigation or use of Greyball, officials have recommended an increase in enforcement of ride-sharing companies, Reuters reports.
By increasing enforcement, the city hopes to ensure that companies — including Uber — do not attempt to evade regulators or deny service to riders in the future.
Just The Latest
Portland’s probe into Greyball is just the latest inquiry into the ride-hailing company’s allegedly sneaky ways.
In May, sources revealed that the Justice Department had opened a criminal investigation against Uber over the use of Greyball. Regulators in California are also reportedly undertaking their own investigation into Greyball.
Hell allegedly let Uber’s top executives and a handful of data scientists track the availability and location of Lyft drivers in a given area, as well as track which of its drivers also drove for Lyft.
This software reportedly worked by creating fake Lyft driver accounts, and staging them at various locations around the city. That positioning let Uber build up a grid view of the whole city and all the Lyft drivers within it.
Last week, it was revealed that the FBI had reportedly opened an investigation into Hell.
Back in June, reports surfaced that the Federal Trade Commission had opened an inquiry into Uber’s privacy practices, including its handling of customer data.
Although the sources didn’t specify what the FTC staff was looking into, Uber’s handling of customer data and its tracking of users has come under scrutiny in the past. For instance, in April, reports suggested that Uber tracked iPhones even after the app was deleted. The company has since allowed customers to opt-out of this practice.
Last month, it was revealed that the U.S. Justice Department is in the first stages of investigating whether managers at the company ran afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that prohibits companies and their employees from bribing foreign officials in the course of doing business.