Greyball: Uber’s Super Cool App to Subvert Trolls

You want to harm the company? You are going to use some wonky software.

What can a company do about trolls who use their technology to hurt the company and other consumers? It’s a tough problem for a technology company like Uber because anyone can download the app and summon a car and get picked up. Some of these accounts, inevitably, will belong to bad actors who are up to no good.

Reputation data for individual users are fantastic, but there’s still the problem that users can make new accounts. What can you do?

A primary use of the trick: prohibiting wicked sting operations.

Several years ago, reveals the New York Times, Uber had a fantastic idea. For a suspected malevolent troll who used the service, the company dropped an extra layer on their smartphone application. The passenger would call a car, someone would answer the query, but then the ride would be canceled. This happened repeatedly. The beauty of this strategy is that the person doesn’t know it is happening and the process discourages the creation of new user accounts.

It’s not blackballing. It’s about being “greyballed,” which is the name of the application.

Peacefully Blocking Bureaucrats

Awesome right? It is especially valuable when you consider a primary use of the trick: prohibiting wicked sting operations by transportation authorities who were seeking to shut down consumer access to an alternative to municipal cabs. If the software sensed that the account was plotting an attack, Greyball would go into effect.

If the data points to a problem passenger, Greyball goes into effect.

There is nothing illegal about refusing rides to anyone, for any reason.

How could Uber know? There are many techniques. The software could sniff out credit cards attached to police credit unions, for example, or accounts that would open and close regularly around government buildings. Another strategy would be to match accounts with throw-away phones often purchased by city officials only for this purpose. The app even looked at associated social media accounts and the content of postings.

If the data pointed to a problem passenger, Greyball would go into effect. Whoo hoo!

This turns out to be a major way that Uber managed to become so awesome in city after city, all over the world, even as regulators, taxi monopolists, and meddlesome city council members tried to stop it from happening. Consumers got hooked and lobbied on behalf of the company, and the rest is history.

This Is Not a Scandal

Now, you might think that the company would be praised for such excellent creativity. An app for getting around people who are trying to destroy your business model? Many companies would like such a thing. In fact, most citizens would!

But the New York Times doesn’t see it that way. They treated the revelation like it was some kind of “scandal”: “Uber has for years engaged in a worldwide program to deceive the authorities in markets where its low-cost ride-hailing service was resisted by law enforcement or, in some instances, had been banned.”

Greyball is a public service!

Clutch those pearls, journalists!

The truth is that the app was fully approved by the company’s legal team and it is easy to see why. There is nothing wrong with knowing your customer. There is nothing wrong with refusing to pick up people who mean you harm. There is nothing illegal about refusing rides to anyone, for any reason, and this is how it should be.

And keep this in mind as you consider the ethics of these practices. The purpose of the technology is to help the public gain access to better transportation services at cheaper prices. And the app worked to do this despite how the company has constantly been threatened with both public and private violence merely for wanting to give people rides around the city.

Greyball is a public service! And it sure beats anything cities have done for commuters.

If there are any legal problems here, they surely should be placed at the feet of those city officials conducting sting operations designed to entrap people engaged in the peaceful activity of giving rides in exchange for money. Such operations, at a minimum, involved perpetuating fraud with the attempt to disrupt commercial activity.

Uber should be congratulated for figuring out a way around this problem. Would that every commercial service could be so creative and smart with its use of technology.

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