Uber pledges to stop 'greyballing' local regulators

Uber has said it will stop using the technology it has used for years that allows it to dance around regulators and law enforcement in locations where the ride-booking service is restricted or outright banned.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor

Uber announced in a blog post on Wednesday that it will stop using its "greyballing" technology that hides the standard city view from certain users and shows them an altered view instead.

The New York Times reported on Friday that Uber was using technology, dubbed internally as "Greyball", to prevent certain groups of individuals from using the Uber app, including local regulators and law enforcement looking to catch the company operating in locations where its service is banned or restricted.

The company told The New York Times, however, that an alternate view of the app is shown to customers that have violated Uber's terms of service.

Predominantly used in the US, greyball first came to light in the same year when investigators began to hail rides using the Uber app to build a case against the company. One such investigator, Erich England from Portland, Oregon, found his ride requests were quickly cancelled after being submitted.

England, alongside many others, were tagged with a small piece of code which read "greyball".

To stop them using the service and building up evidence that could be used to support the case for banning Uber in the area or completing suspected sting operations, when a ride was hailed by a greyball account, the company served up a fake version of the app complete with ghost cars to frustrate them and leave them standing on the sidewalk.

In the blog post, Uber's chief security officer Joe Sullivan wrote that the company has "started a review of the different ways this technology has been used to date" and that it is "expressly prohibiting its use to target action by local regulators going forward".

Sullivan noted, however, that it will take some time to enforce the prohibition "given the way our systems are configured".

While Uber confirmed the use of greyballing, it did not acknowledge its use as improper or wrong. Rather, it presented other use cases of the technology. For example, the greyball version is used as a test bed for new features as well as for marketing promotions and fraud prevention.

Uber has faced a lot of resistance as it expanded into international markets, but despite constant battles with city officials, regulators, and court cases brought forward by taxi bodies, Uber has still managed to attain a valuation of $68 billion.

Recently, a security researcher revealed the existence of a bug in Uber systems which could be exploited to book and enjoy rides without ever paying for them thanks to a simple code tweak.

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