Uber uses a software tool to identify and sidestep code enforcement officials

Uber is using a tool called “Greyball” to work identity requests made by certain users and deny them service, according to Mike Isaac reporting for the New York Times. The software, later renamed the “violation of terms of service” or VTOS program, is said to employ data analysis on info collected by the Uber app to identify individuals violating Uber’s terms of service, and blocks riders from being able to hail rides who fall into that category – including, according to the report, members of code enforcement authorities or city officials who are attempting to gather data about Uber offering service where it’s currently prohibited.

The report claims that that Uber’s “violation of terms of service” or VTOS program, briefly known as Greyball, began around 2014, and has sign-off from Uber’s legal team. The company provided TechCrunch and the NYT a statement, which reads as follows:

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.

Uber maintains that this program is intended mostly for the protection of its drivers, from code enforcers working in concert with taxi interests. Uber drivers have been victims of physical harm as a result of some of these types of so-called “sting operations.” But Greyball’s use also came to light due to information supplied to NYT by four different Uber sources, including two current employees, who were uncomfortable with the circumstances of its use according to the newspaper.

Some of the techniques reportedly used by Uber include building a virtual perimeter around authority offices and facilities in cities which the company monitored for app usage. It also had employees conduct searches for social media profiles to confirm certain users were indeed members of local regulation enforcement teams, the report claims, in order to add them to the Greyball list. Uber also sometimes called drivers to end rides prematurely if they’d picked up someone on the Greyball list accidentally, per the Times.

The report says that as many as 50 to 60 Uber employees knew about Greyball’s existence in total, including its general counsel Salle Too and VP of Global Operations Ryan Graves. VTOS continues to operate even now, though the focus remains on identifying bad actors from competitors, private industry opposition and others, according to the company.

During Uber’s launch in Portland, law enforcement were instructed to attempt to hail Ubers and bust the drivers, since the service was in violation of the city’s local transportation regulations. Oregon Live reported at the time that officials with the City Commissioner’s office couldn’t seem to book a ride, leading them to theorize that they’d already been blocked by the ride-haling provider.

The program recalls issues raised around Uber in the past, including statements made by SVP of Business Emil Michael at a dinner in 2014, which Uber CEO Travis Kalanick later apologized for, saying that Michael’s suggestion Uber could essentially do opposition research on journalists were “terrible and do not represent the company.” A report from Reveal News regarding a lawsuit in December that likewise made claims about the risks of Uber’s data management practices in terms of internal exposure to company employees, and mentioned Greyball by name.

Additional reporting by Taylor Hatmaker.