Uber troubles again: treading the legal line with Greyball

Uber has had troubles after troubles in the US – from politics and IP lawsuits to corporate culture harassment claims and most recently a row with a driver. This time, however, trouble’s gone global.

What was made initially as a program to weed out users using Uber services improperly, has turned into a program used to fool local authorities while Uber illegally operate in those countries.

The program in question is called Greyball – and it evolved into a service where data collected from the app is used to identify and evade officials trying to halt their operations. The New York Times first reported this and it was stated that said program has been used in cities like Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, and in countries like Australia, China and South Korea.

The NYT wrote “The program, including Greyball, began as early as 2014 and remains in use, predominantly outside the United States. Greyball was approved by Uber’s legal team.”

It’s no secret that many countries banned ride hailing services such as Uber. This was because it was either difficult or impossible to regulate non-commercial drivers using private cars – whether to protect passengers, or driver’s worker rights.

The way it works is if Uber data Greyballs certain “riders” to be city officials trying to build a case against the company, Uber will provide a fake version of their app, and replace on the map ghost cars, to prevent from getting caught. It was first used on Portland police officials in US when the operation was still classified as illegal.

In many cases where legality is in question, Greyball is put in place so that workers are working as drivers while Uber buys time to create a framework with local regulators. It certainly helped Uber get into over 70 countries and remain one of the most successful startup in tech -disregarding ethics. In fact one of the common phrase used to describe companies stuck in traditional ways of operating instead of innovating is “You don’t want to be Uber-ed”.

That may be the case but NYT notes that employees are getting more and more uncomfortable about the usage of said program and has came forward to NYT with information.

Although some claimed that the “practices and tools were born in part out of safety measures meant to protect drivers in some countries. In France, India and Kenya, for instance, taxi companies and workers targeted and attacked new Uber drivers.” In other claims, “Greyballing started as a way to scramble the locations of UberX drivers to prevent competitors from finding them.”

Eventually, that use has turned into treading the line between legal and ethical. Not just in the US either – it’s a system put in place across 5 continents. It’s claimed that at least 50 people know about Greyball, and was approved by the legal team.

At current moment it’s unknown whether Greyball has affected operations in Malaysia and surrounding regions.

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