Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

Slimy as a Service

Mike Isaac in the New York Times on How Uber Used its Secret Greyball Tool to Deceive Authorities Worldwide:

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 as part of 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.

While underhanded, Uber’s use of an automated system to dodge regulators is not terribly surprising. Uber is notorious for ignoring laws and regulations until it can lobby for those laws and regulations to be loosed or lifted entirely. The fact that Uber spent the time and energy to develop a system for avoiding regulators instead of just paying fines should tell you all you need to know about how often Uber expected to be fined.

For me, the most outrageous bit of the Isaac piece comes a bit later:

Yet using its app to identify and sidestep the authorities in places where regulators said Uber was breaking the law goes further toward skirting ethical lines — and, potentially, legal ones. […]

In a statement, Uber said, “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.”

Ah, yes. Violent criminals and other government officials: the scourge of taxi drivers everywhere. Thank goodness Uber is there to protect its drivers from the outlaw and law enforcement alike. Well, not “its drivers,” per se, because the drivers are definitely independent contractors and not employees. If the drivers were employees, Uber would have to bear the cost of payroll taxes and health insurance.