Uber may be under a US federal criminal probe for its ‘Greyball’ tool

A doctored view of its app provided to certain riders reportedly helped it avoid local regulators

IDG

IDG

Uber Technologies is reportedly under a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in the U.S. over its use of secret software, which helped the company avoid officials seeking rides to investigate the ride-hailing service, according to news reports Thursday.

Their accounts appear to tally with a report last month by the Portland Bureau of Transportation, which stated that the City of Portland was notified by the U.S. attorney of the Northern District of California that Uber is the subject of a federal inquiry. The city is cooperating with the on-going probe.

Soon after the use of the so-called “greyballing” technology in many countries was reported by the New York Times in early March, Uber said it would prohibit the use of the technology to target action by local regulators.

Uber’s Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan wrote in a blog post in March that Greyball had been used for a variety of purposes, including the testing of new features by employees, marketing promotions, fraud prevention, protecting its partners from physical harm, and deterring riders from using the app in violation of the company's terms of service.

Uber received a subpoena from a grand jury in Northern California, which has sought documents concerning how the software tool functioned and where it was deployed, suggesting that a criminal investigation is in progress, reported Reuters on Thursday, citing two persons familiar with the situation. Besides using fake versions of its app, Uber used other methods including using mapping technology to create virtual fences around government offices and looking for government-issued credit cards, The Wall Street Journal reported.

An investigation into Greyball technology would add to Uber’s existing woes including charges of sexual harassment by a former engineer and a lawsuit from Waymo charging that a former employee stole trade secrets relating to self-driving technology before quitting to set up a startup that was later acquired by Uber. The company has also run into issues with regulators in many countries.

The ride-hailing company did not immediately comment on the reported criminal investigation.

States have also investigated Uber’s use of Greyball technology. In April, the PBOT found that after Uber had illegally entered the Portland market in December 2014, the company tagged 17 individual rider accounts - 16 of which have been identified as government officials - using its Greyball software tool.

Uber had used Greyball software to intentionally evade the agency’s officers from Dec. 5 to Dec. 19, 2014 and deny 29 separate ride requests by its enforcement officers, according to the PBOT investigation initiated after the New York Times report on greyballing technology.

Uber ceased operations on Dec. 21, 2014 and the PBOT said there was no evidence of the company using the technology after it was granted a permit to operate in the city in April 2015, though it clarified that the lack of evidence did not prove definitely that the tools were not used.

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