Greyball is part of a larger program called VTOS, or "violation of terms of service", that allows Uber to suss out people thought to be targeting the ride-hailing service improperly. The program is reportedly still in use outside of the United States and was approved by Uber's legal team. The upstart told the Times that Greyball simply stamps out abusers of its platform, rival app makers, unsafe passengers, and, er, law enforcement: "This program 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".
Uber's Greyball tool successfully blackballed England - that seems to be how it got its name? like a legally "grey" sort of blackballing? - and authorities in Portland never caught the service operating illegally. While the internal program and related software helped Uber drivers evade angry and often violent threats from competitors in certain countries, Uber learned that it could also be used to help its drivers avoid the scrutiny of authorities, the Times reported. While "Greyballing" was first used in new cities to muddle the locations of UberX drivers to fight local taxi competition, Uber engineers soon saw those tactics' potential use in evading law enforcement.
He requested a auto, just like any other user - but the digital cars he saw on his screen were deliberately fake "ghost" cars that could not give him rides. The tool flagged users Uber believed were working against it in some way - like government inspectors - and made it nearly impossible for them to catch a ride.
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When a user was "Greyballed", the Times says, Uber could show a set of fake cars on the app's map - or no cars at all. When enforcement officials bought dozens of cellphones to create different accounts, Uber employees went to that city's electronics stores to check device numbers of the cheapest phones - the models most likely bought by cash-strapped city agencies.
"This program denies ride requests to users who are violating our terms of service", an Uber representative wrote, "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".