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For years now, Uber has been secretly using a fake app, GPS data and social media to avoid law-enforcement efforts that were documenting the ride-sharing service’s presence in new cities where Uber had been banned or was operating in legal grey areas.
The VTOS program (short for “violation of terms of service”) was described to The New York Times by four current and former employees at Uber and has been underway at the company since 2014. It was originally designed to prevent regular riders who were abusing or violating the company’s Terms of Service from using the app by identifying them, and then substituting a version of the Uber app on those users’ phones that would show “ghost cars” on the screen — which were unhailable and would quickly cancel any rides that did get booked. The fake app was nicknamed “Greyball” internally at Uber.
However, Uber eventually realized it could also use Greyball to prevent law-enforcement officials from hailing its vehicles, which some were attempting to do in an effort to collect evidence against the company. The fake app was used in Boston and Las Vegas, along with several overseas countries where it continues to be employed today.
When identifying law enforcement officials, not only did Uber use social media and data collected by its app to distinguish users who regularly searched for cars near government offices, it went as far as sending employees to local electronics stores to record the device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones available for sale, which were often the ones later purchased by budget-conscious government agencies for use in Uber stings.
The ride sharing service, which has been known in the past for its sometimes heavy handed tactics, has been under intense scrutiny in recent months. When the immigrant travel ban was implemented in late January, it was a target of a social media campaign called #DeleteUber because it had continued rides to JFK airport while taxi drivers had temporarily halted service in a form of protest. More recently it has been accused of tolerating sexual harassment of its women employees, and earlier this week its CEO got in a spat with one of his own drivers that was caught on video.
While the company’s legal team approved the use of VTOS and Greyball, independent legal experts are unsure of its legality, suggesting that the program might violate the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or be a form of intentional obstruction of justice in some jurisdictions. Additionally, deploying a fake app in and of itself could be a violation of the terms of service for Apple’s App Store and Google Play.
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.
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