Using data collected from its app and a tool called Greyball, Uber has been able to identify and avoid law enforcement where its service was either under scrutiny or banned altogether, according to a report in the New York Times.
The tool was originally developed as part of Uber's violation of terms of service (VTOS) program which helped the company weed out those people who might be misusing its service.
“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,” the Times quoted Uber as saying in a statement.
Uber created the tool to root out people it thought were using or targeting its service improperly. The VTOS program, including the Greyball tool, began as early as 2014 and remains in use, predominantly outside the United States. Greyball was approved by Uber's legal team.
The tool helped identify and spurn law enforcement officials using 12 identifiers and perused user payment information to see if it was linked to an organization affiliated with the police, like particular credit unions. The company also put digital geofences around certain locations housing authorities' offices then observed which users in those locales might be opening and closing the Uber app often.
Users identified as law enforcement were tagged with Greyball code and when they called for a car the service would sometimes deploy “ghost” cars that the user could see through the app, but were, in reality, non-existent.
The Greybar tool was also used to fend off competitors.