Is Uber’s Greyball pushing the boundaries of what is legally and ethically OK?

By Cameron Abbott and Allison Wallace

Ridesharing service Uber has been using a self-developed program called Greyball in a bid to avoid regulatory scrutiny and other law enforcement activity.

As reported in The New York Times, the program uses various techniques to survey government officials when rolling out the service in new cities. This came after Uber’s services encountered legal issues (including cars being impounded and drivers fined) as it tried to operate in new locations, including in Melbourne, Australia. Uber’s Greyball program includes:

• drawing a “geofence” around authorities’ offices on a digital map, with Uber monitoring users who frequently opened and closed its app in that area, giving an indication of people who may be associated with those specific authorities;
• looking at users’ credit card information to see whether the card was tied directly to an institution like a police credit union; and
• searching social media profiles and other information available online to identify people linked to law enforcement. If a user is identified through this method, they are then “greyballed” by tagging them with a small piece of code that read “greyball” followed by a string of numbers. If this user then calls for a car, Uber can scramble a set of fake cars to the user, or show that no cars are available.

While Uber says the techniques were originally developed in order to protect drivers who were being targeted by taxi and limousine drivers and owners, questions do have to be asked about whether using this technology to flout authorities is actually still OK. Disruptive players often have to “bend the law” but collecting personal information to avoid enforcement invites action from authorities in its own right.

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