They say you shouldn’t kick someone when he’s down. But over the past few months, Uber made itself an easy target for its critics. The company many love for its convenience, but hate for what they see as its dubious business practices, has stumbled into another nightmare. Last week, the New York Times published the results of a lengthy investigation that accuses the company of using a software program to avoid detection by local officials who attempted to monitor its drivers.
The villain this time around is what Uber employees and executives referred to as “Greyball.” As Times reporter Mike Isaac reported, Uber engineers developed the software to identify and collect information on municipal officials who attempted to monitor the ridesharing service. The program was originally designed to identify Uber users who were violating the company’s terms of service, and is generally used more outside of the U.S.
But in the case of some cities that resisted or attempted to regulate Uber, such as Portland, Oregon, Greyball (also known internally as VTOS) was used to root out authorities who were trying to build a case that the company was operating illegally.
Erich England, a code officer in Portland, was filmed by local newspaper The Oregonian as he attempted to hail a ride in the city. But while his app showed that drivers were near him, they would end up “cancelling” his ride. It turned out that Uber identified England as a potential risk that could embroil the company in legal trouble, as Portland’s transportation department had not yet approved the company to operate within the city of 610,000.
Portland’s argument was that it was unfair for Uber to operate as a taxi company, yet make up its own rules as to how and when it would transport passengers within the city. As explained by Dylan Rivera, a spokesperson for the city’s transport board, Portland objected to giving Uber carte blanche to pick up passengers “without guarantees for picking up the handicapped, guarantees of providing citywide services, or playing by the other rules that the companies play by here." The Times article revealed that, unbeknownst to him, England was using a fake app developed for him and other officials by Uber.
Comments posted below a video which started trending after the Times story broke included cries of “get lost bureaucrats” and accusations that the city was in the hands of “union cab companies.” Of course, those calls get drowned out when there is a news story about a rogue or deadly driver or cases of racial profiling. And Uber has cultivated a reputation as wanting to dictate the terms by which it operates within cities – one of several reasons why the residents of Austin, Texas, voted to kick Uber (and Lyft) to the curb last year. The company's playbook has also not always played well overseas, as it struggles to gain traction in cities such as Tokyo.
But one subtext of this story is how the Times was able to reveal this tale in the first place. The newspaper claimed that four Uber employees leaked documents and explained how the program worked, the newspaper and Isaac reported. As we all know, not everyone working within Uber is enamored with this Silicon Valley “unicorn.” Accusations of a toxic work culture and sexual harassment have distracted the company, leading Lyft to lick its chops as it expands into more cities. Meanwhile, Google accused the company of stealing technology critical for the advancement of self-driving cars. And an ill-time tweet basically announcing “we’re open” while other New York City drivers’ associations were trying to shut down services to JFK Airport during the height of the Donald Trump administration’s travel ban was just the start of the company’s recent woes.
In fairness, Uber provides a service for people who have long been turned off by unreliable and expensive taxi services, or are frustrated by inefficient local public transportation. And while driving for Uber can be far from rosy and even become a massive risk for drivers who become part of the company’s sub-prime auto lending scheme, working as an Uber driver has become a financial lifeline for many people.
The challenge for Uber is that it is unwilling, or is unable, to win the public’s trust. Once that trust is gone, problems such as Greyball only allow its critics to pile on the company even more. At this point, it may take years for Uber to repair its demolished reputation.
Image credit: Aaron Parecki/Wiki Commons
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.