Government officials conducted sting operations to prevent Uber from operating in some cities, so Uber came up with a plan to sting them back, according to a New York Times report published Friday.
The plan, which is still operating, according to the Times, is known internally as "greyballing" or VTOS, short for "violation of terms of service." When Uber suspects that someone is using its app in a way that it deems improper—say, conducting a sting operation to identify Uber drivers—the company will display phantom cars on the app to confuse the person and even manually cancel a trip if the person manages to be matched with a driver.
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The Times, citing four current and former Uber employees who discussed greyballing, reported that the system is now mostly used outside the US, but was used to thwart officials in Paris, Portland, Ore., and other cities that were at odds with the ride-hailing service. Uber's legal department was aware of the practice, according to the Times.
The tactics that Uber uses as part of the greyballing program are as advanced as you'd expect from a company known for its cunning and disregard for existing regulations. They include setting up a geofence around the office buildings of public officials and searching social media profiles to determine if a user was an official likely to be involved in a sting operation, the Times reports.
There are low-tech parts of the operation involving old-fashioned sleuthing, too: Uber sent people to electronics stores to record the device numbers of cheap mobile phones that officials might buy to mask their identities, according to the Times.
In a statement, Uber acknowledged its practice of greyballing, which it said was intended to target fraud and abuse. "This program denies ride requests to fraudulent 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," and Uber spokesperson said.