By Noelle Phelan
In recent years, use of ride sharing technology such as Uber has become an increasingly popular way to get around. However, as the application’s popularity has increased, so have the amount of regulations many cities have attempted to place on the company. In order to ensure a fair market, and safety for both the drivers and users, a number of cities have attempted to increase the amount of regulations when it comes to the company. Uber, as one would expect, is not pleased with the attempts at increasing regulation and the amount of opposition it faces in those cities that are clamoring for regulation. True to form, the company has tried to determine ways to work around the push for increased regulation or even work around being outright banned from operating. One of the ways in which they tried to accomplish this task was via a software called “Greyball.”
The software tool enables Uber to evade members of law enforcement, public officials and members of regulatory agencies. In cities where Uber faces opposition, the company tracks both destinations and credit card numbers to determine who could be a potential enemy. If a person is commonly dropped off at a government office, or if the credit card linked to an account is one from a government affiliated credit card union, the company flags that user as a potential authority. There were more than a dozen “signifiers” that were used by Uber in conjunction with the Greyball software to determine whether the users in question were regular users, or were potential authorities.
If the dozen signifiers could not help Uber to confirm whether a user was just a regular user or a potential authority, the company would search for information about the person on the Internet and on various social media sites, to determine if there was anything linking them to law enforcement or the government. Those users who were determined to be law enforcement authorities or city officials were then “greyballed” by the software. When they opened the Uber app to request a ride, they would not see the same version of the app that others around them are seeing. Instead, a fake version of the app is portrayed on their phone, showing that no cars are available. The user who has been greyballed is unable to obtain a ride via the app.
According to Uber, the software was developed to protect drivers from entrapment from sting operations and also to protect them from physical harm, as the software could be used for purposes other than evading law enforcement and regulatory officials. The purpose of the software ostensibly is to deny ride requests to any Uber users who are in the practice of violating the terms of service of the app. These people range from “people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt operations or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers.”
While utilizing this software may not necessarily be illegal, the manner in which Uber went about utilizing it may be, and their legal department may also face ethical consequences. While the legal department may be protected if they did not know the manner in which the company was going to use the software, there could be a legal ethics violation if they were aware that Uber was going to be using the software to deny rides to authorities.
Uber is already being scrutinized by many for their ethical boundaries, or lack thereof. Many allegations have been made in recent weeks regarding sexual harassment, gender pay inequality, and inappropriate workplace culture. This allegation regarding the use of such an ethically questionable software is only one of many to be added to the list of Uber’s potential transgressions. If a state’s attorney general chooses to investigate, there is the possibility that the lawyers who approved the software usage could face consequences, including disbarment.
Student Bio: Noelle is a staff member on the Journal of High Technology Law. She is currently a 2L at Suffolk Law. She possesses a B.A. in English and Sociology and a Criminal Justice certificate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.