The Department of Justice (DOJ) is launching a criminal investigation into Uber’s surveillance practices, specifically a software program that helped it evade regulators, according to a Thursday report from Reuters.
Uber admitted it used the spying tool known as “Greyball,” which it said helped pinpoint and elude local government officials attempting to catch drivers and operators using the ride-sharing service in the act, according to The New York Times in March. The ride-hailing service was forbidden in several cities and states across the country, like Portland Ore., and Boston, because Uber did not comply with what it considered burdensome laws.
The tool apparently wasn’t just for law enforcement authorities, but also competitors or anyone else trying to ensnare Uber employees.
“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 said in a statement, according to Mike Isaac of The New York Times, who was the first to report on “Greyball.”
The program appears to have been successful. Erich England, a code enforcement inspector in Portland reportedly did not catch a single Uber driver operating illegally because the company tagged England and his colleagues’ accounts. If a driver was connected with England, it would cancel soon after. And Uber would even create a phony app for people marked as potential troublemakers, which would feature ghost cars that were never actually available for its services, according to The NYT.
Uber announced in March that it would stop using the covert software, which it reportedly employed for years, adding that it may take awhile to totally decommission the feature.
The DOJ’s investigation is yet another issue the ride-sharing startup turned tech conglomerate is dealing with after it suffered a number of missteps and scandals in recent months.
The Greyball tool is just one of three invasive spy programs Uber has been accused of creating and using.
“God View” (also internally called “Heaven”) would allow workers (usually at a higher level) to track riders without their permission. The company ultimately agreed to pay a $20,000 penalty and change their privacy practices, after the New York attorney general’s office launched an official investigation. (RELATED: Uber Is Tracking Your Location Even After The Ride Is Over)
Uber also used a secret software called “Hell,” which allowed the company to spy on drivers using Lyft, its ride-sharing competitor. A former driver for Lyft is in the process of suing Uber for using such software, which he claims led to the violation of his privacy rights.
The DOJ reportedly plans on focusing its investigation on Uber’s use of Greyball, despite the several other assertive tactics from the company.
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