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Uber faces criminal investigation for covert ‘Greyball’ software

The US Department of Justice is beginning an investigation into ride-hailing company Uber Technologies Inc., thanks to use of software which enables the service to operate secretly where it is still awaiting official approval

The software, named ‘Greyball’, identifies and blocks users suspected of being officials investigating Uber. In areas where Uber is banned, restricted or not yet approved, regulators are known to have posed as passengers to investigate the company’s activity.

The secret software was revealed in a New York Times investigation in March, which found Uber using Greyball in the US, Australia, China and South Korea.

Approximately a dozen methods are used to flag up possible enforcement officers. These include ‘geofencing’ the areas around government offices, searching credit card databases for associations with government or police agencies, identifying cheap phones bought in bulk for sting operations, and searching individuals’ social media profiles.

Once a user has been ‘Greyballed’, Uber evades detection by presenting them with an alternative version of the app, populated with fake cars.

After Uber’s use of the software was revealed, the company admitted that Greyball had been used to avoid government regulators, and stated that it was primarily meant to deny fake ride requests to limit fraud and protect drivers. Greyball is part of a wider operation at Uber called VTOS (Violation of Terms of Service).

The company has received a grand jury subpoena seeking documents concerning how and where the software was used. This indicates that a criminal investigation is under way. Claims include that Uber used Greyball in Portland, Oregon, where the company is still seeking full official approval to operate.

In a letter sent to Portland transport regulators, Uber claimed that Greyball had not been used since April 2015, when officials put in place a pilot programme for ride-hailing companies.

The criminal investigation is the latest complication facing the controversial company, which is undergoing an internal investigation into its allegedly aggressive and sexist workplace culture. Uber is also engaged in a legal dispute with Google-backed company, Waymo. The case, filed by Waymo in February, accuses Uber of conspiring to steal trade secrets relating to lidar, a system that allows self-driving cars to sense their surroundings.

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