Uber has used a secret tool to prevent authorities such as police officers and government inspectors from hailing rides in markets where the service was under scrutiny by local governments, the New York Times reported Friday. The report said the feature, called Greyball, was utilized in Boston.
The program makes booking a ride difficult for users whom Uber suspects of carrying out sting operations aimed at busting drivers in jurisdictions where its legality is unclear. Uber identified the officials through personal information such as credit cards and social media accounts, as well as their geographic location, such as near a municipal building, according to the report.
State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat who last year led the drafting of state regulations overseeing Uber, said the Times report “raises a lot of red flags right now about the veracity of the company.”
In recent years, many states, including Massachusetts, have passed laws to explicitly make Uber legal. But in its early years Uber earned a reputation for exploiting legal uncertainty over whether its service should be regulated like taxis. The Greyball technology allegedly blocked targeted authorities from booking an Uber ride, showed them false images of available drivers in the app or quickly canceled any rides they were able to book.
According to the Times, Greyball is an outgrowth of program Uber uses to screen out potentially troublesome fares.
The Walsh administration has generally been receptive to Uber, although police commissioner Evans has adopted a harder line on the issue of background checks for drivers of the service.
Several years ago, when Uber was still new to Boston, the city police cited hundreds of passenger car owners, including some driving for Uber, for operating illegal ride services. The Times report on Greyball fleetingly mentioned Boston, giving little information about how the program was deployed here. Uber’s local office said it would not give further details Friday night.
Boston Police spokesman Lieutenant Michael McCarthy said the city’s officers have never conducted a sting operation aimed at catching drivers, and that the citations came because officers happened to see Uber drivers operating on the road.
Cambridge Police conducted sting operations aimed at pulling over Uber drivers in 2012, before then-Governor Deval Patrick took action to clarify the company’s ability to operate legally. The Cambridge Police Department declined to comment Friday.
Attorney General Maura Healey’s office found the report concerning and will seek more information about the Greyball feature, said spokeswoman Emily Snyder. State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat who last year led the drafting of state regulations overseeing Uber, said the Times report “raises a lot of red flags right now about the veracity of the company.”
In a statement, Uber defended its screening policies, saying it “denies ride requests to 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.”
The Greyball revelation is just the latest controversy to rock Uber. In recent weeks, it has faced sexual harassment allegations at its California headquarters, was sued by a division of Google’s parent company, and was hit by a social media campaign that urged users to delete its app. Chief executive Travis Kalanick was also recently caught on tape dismissing the concerns of a driver upset over declining fares, prompting Kalanick to admit he must seek “leadership help.”
This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe on March 4, 2017.