Uber uses data-mining to identify and block riders who may be cops, investigators or regulators

Greyball is Uber's codename for a program that tries to predict which new signups are secretly cops, regulators or investigators who could make trouble for the company, deployed in "Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, and in countries like Australia, China and South Korea" where the company was fighting with the authorities.

Greyball — and its parent program, Violation of Terms of Service (VTOS) — were designed to kick riders that Uber didn't like off of its system. But Greyball did more: it created "ghost cars" that were only shown to suspected adversaries of the company, to send investigators on wild goose chases to catch drivers that didn't exist.

Greyball used a variety of techniques to identify Uber's potential adversaries, from geofencing the region around public buildings, blocking riders whose credit cards were issued by police credit-unions, and surveilling the app's users by hijacking their own phones, trying to find users who repeatedly opened and closed the app (as a means of identifying whether there were Uber cars around).

The company also sent undercover agents to electronics discount stores to record the phone numbers assigned to the cheapest burner phones, on the theory that cash-strapped police departments would look to save money wherever possible.

All of this was combined with data-mining using social networks, through which Uber counterintelligence employees would look up suspicious new users on social media to see if they were linked to law enforcement.

People tagged as adversaries of the companies were denied rides, and drivers who accidentally picked them up were ordered to cease the ride and kick them out.

Greyball came to light because two anonymous sources described it to New York Times reporter Mike Isaacs. Uber subsequently confirmed the program's existence, but claims that it was primarily used to prevent angry taxi drivers from stalking Uber drivers to harass or beat them. Uber's general counsel, Sally Yoo, approved the Greyball program, which involved about 50 people in the company.

Uber's use of Greyball was recorded on video in late 2014, when Erich England, a code enforcement inspector in Portland, Ore., tried to hail an Uber car downtown in a sting operation against the company.

At the time, Uber had just started its ride-hailing service in Portland without seeking permission from the city, which later declared the service illegal. To build a case against the company, officers like Mr. England posed as riders, opening the Uber app to hail a car and watching as miniature vehicles on the screen made their way toward the potential fares.

But unknown to Mr. England and other authorities, some of the digital cars they saw in the app did not represent actual vehicles. And the Uber drivers they were able to hail also quickly canceled. That was because Uber had tagged Mr. England and his colleagues — essentially Greyballing them as city officials — based on data collected from the app and in other ways. The company then served up a fake version of the app, populated with ghost cars, to evade capture.

How Uber Deceives the Authorities Worldwide
[Mike Isaacs/NYT]