What Do You Call a Tool to Help Uber Avoid Gov't Stings? A Good Start.

Company used a secret method of getting around regulators trying to shut them down. If only the rest of us were so lucky.


Wutthichai Luemuang / Dreamstime.com

As Uber faces some public relations problems right now connected to complaints of sexual harrassment and mistreatment of its drivers, The New York Times has what it apparently thinks is an expose of sorts. It doesn't. Or at least it doesn't from the perspective of the lives of ordinary people.

The way journalist Mike Isaac has approached this story betrays a type of media bias that seems to naturally assume that government regulators are in charge of us all, and those who are trying to find ways to work around them are up to no good.

To wit, Uber uses a tool called "Greyball" to circumvent officials. It's a tool that Uber says is designed to help it deny ride requests to people who violate their terms of service, disrupt the system, or threaten their drivers. They also have been using it to operate in places where government officials have been trying to shut them down.

The story of the technology itself is genuinely fascinating, but it's caught up in this concept that Uber's behavior is villainous, possibly even illegal, though the expert Isaac consulted, a fellow Times contributor, could only make vague claims.

This tool essentially creates a fake ghost version of Uber. People who are "greyballed" could order cars via Uber's map and could watch them travel around. But the Uber drivers always canceled when the customer ordered a pickup. The cars were not actually real. They were fabricated by the app to trick the user into wasting time, without the user realizing they had been secretly been banned and maybe starting a new account.

Uber used this tool to operate in Portland, Oregon, as regulators attempted to use sting operations to catch them and shut them down. As the story explains, this all bothered authorities because Uber was employing people and putting them to work outside of their purview:

UberX essentially lets people who have passed a cursory background check and vehicle inspection to become an Uber driver quickly. In the past, many cities banned the service and declared it illegal.

That's because the ability to summon a noncommercial driver — which is how UberX drivers who use their private vehicles are typically categorized — often had no regulations around it. When Uber barreled into new markets, it capitalized on the lack of rules to quickly enlist UberX drivers, who were not commercially licensed, and put them to work before local regulators could prohibit them from doing so.

After authorities caught up, the company and officials generally clashed — Uber has run into legal hurdles with UberX in cities including Austin, Tex., Philadelphia and Tampa, Fla., as well as internationally. Eventually, the two sides came to an agreement, and regulators developed a legal framework for the low-cost service.

What's fascinating about the story is how it fails to identify a single person victimized by the Greyball tool other than the authorities who are unable to operate their stings. Meanwhile, as the story does note, it's the Uber drivers who faced harassment and had their cars impounded or ticketed by authorities, which Uber then had to reimburse. And in other countries, Uber drivers (and passengers) had to worry about actual physical attacks from workers in the entrenched taxi cartels.

As usual when we see stories like this, the defense always seems to be "Uber needs to follow the same rules as everybody else," and never "Everybody else should have the same freedom as Uber." The story is written with an unquestioned assumption that extensive government regulation of private transit is normal and expected. When I mentioned this sort of bias on Twitter, I got this response from a stranger:

"That's not media or institutional bias, that's a reality bias. Very few people are ok with inmates running the asylum"

My response there, as it is here, is that "inmates running the asylum" is "an interesting way to describe ostensibly free human beings."

Read the full Times story here. Clearly what should happen next is for Uber to find a way to turn that tool into an app for the rest of us to bypass unnecessary regulators out in the wild as well.

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  1. Bit this is a nation of laws! OF LAWS, I
    I tell you!!!

    Trumpistas told me so…

    1. Do you feel you should pick and choose what you get to follow with no consequences? I am not sure the point of laws or rule of law if you dont want to follow them on personal preference.

      Change the law

      1. If you were in the Jim Crow south would you have called the cops if you saw a black man drinking from a whites only drinking fountain?

        1. i was talking about my personal self following the law and my own actions. This is bit of a strawman. I didnt say anything about me with respect to others. Unless it was something egregious where someone else was getting harmed via a person breaking the law like rape, murder, assault, theft, vandalism…, then nope i am not a busy body and do not report others as this would not qualify. If someone speeds i dont really care but if they get caught then that is on them. Change the law as it is rule of law.

          If people can just pick and choose with selective enforcement, then that is corruption and it all falls apart eventually

          What is your position?

          1. “Inmates running the asylum” (from the article).

            A perfect description of Washington, DC, and Government Almighty in general!!!!

          2. Telling people they can’t go about their own lives earning a living and serving others without a permission slip is egregious. You don’t think so because it isn’t hurting you personally which illustrates the narcissism that drives all progressive behavior.

            1. completely misread that my bad

            2. Your point is excellent rudehost. We should have the freedom to earn a living without paying off government people and their friends. Consider the author’s point that the government is unable to provide anyone who says they’ve been victimized by Uber.

              The only people complaining, are the one’s who want to prohibit competition for the work they do, and the politicians who get campaign cash from the ones the provide a monopoly. It’s not a bad thing when criminals complain about what others do that limit the money they can steal.

          3. My position is you are willing to disregard laws therefore it’s not really a ‘the law is the law’ position. So you only care about laws that you care about. Well why do you care about immigration and not speeding which actually kills a ton of people?

            1. whoops sorry xthread.
              Why are you so concerned about ride hailing services?

            2. I said if you get caught for speeding and you get a ticket that is on you. I did not say i would report you.

              I dont have an issue with ride hailing services and think they should be legal.

              However if they are illegal and you get caught, complaining about it being unjust isnt going to do much

          4. What about when the law itself represents “selective enforcement”? What about when the government decides that taxi companies should prosper but Uber should not?

            The point is that the media bias assumes it’s perfectly natural for the government to pick which businesses succeed and which fail, regardless of how these businesses are serving their markets.

            In Portland, the gub’mint decided that because taxi drivers have a slip of paper they bought from the government, they should get all the customers. It doesn’t matter that taxi drivers aren’t necessarily safer. It doesn’t matter that customers can’t usually summon a taxi driver with a convenient app, at least not in U.S. cities. It doesn’t matter that taxis cost a lot more and take longer to arrive. It doesn’t matter that taxi companies generally ignore customer feedback and don’t give a shit about their customer’s opinions because they don’t have to. The gub’mint said, “hey, you bought that piece of paper from us, we’ll make sure you win.” And the media is largely nodding right along with that, saying it’s a good thing because whatever the gub’mint does to “regulate” an industry is good stuff.

            1. What about when the law itself represents “selective enforcement”? What about when the government decides that taxi companies should prosper but Uber should not?

              You’re barking up the wrong tree with that line of argument. If the cops surveil some group suspected of illegal activity, is that selective enforcement? Well, perhaps it is, but it’s also perfectly warranted to only surveil the people you suspect of committing crimes. Who else would you be surveilling?

              The gub’mint said, “hey, you bought that piece of paper from us, we’ll make sure you win.”

              Wrong tree again. The authorities are seeking to apply the law equally to all taxi operators. It’s got nothing to do with picking winners since all operators are covered by the same laws and subject to the same requirements.

              You see, it’s the fundamental authority of the state to license such companies that one must contest. You will lose any other argument as such laws tend to be applied and enforced equally.

      2. what law do you allege is being broken when one private person sells a ride to another private person?

        1. If the city has a law saying it is illegal then it is. That doesnt mean i support said law

          1. Kind of like the way this mayor of a certain western Canadian city thinks it should be regulated:


  2. …a type of media bias that seems to naturally assume that government regulators are in charge of us all, and those who are trying to find ways to work around them are up to no good.

    Unfortunately so many lazy news consumers take that narrative and run with it, making it their own default mindset on government regulation sans any critical thought on the subject.

  3. “designed to help it deny ride requests to people who violate their terms of service, disrupt the system, or threaten their drivers.”
    Sounds like a regulator to me – – – – –

    1. except you can choose to subject yourself to it or not.

  4. So, I’m gonna have to read the links to find out exactly how Greyball really works?

    The program, involving a tool called Greyball, uses data collected from the Uber app and other techniques to identify and circumvent officials.

    Fuck, the journalistic black box. “and other techniques”.

    Reading further…

    1. Uber’s use of Greyball was recorded on video in late 2014, when Erich England, a code enforcement inspector in Portland, Ore., tried to hail an Uber car downtown as part of a sting operation against the company.

      At the time, Uber had just started its ride-hailing service in Portland without seeking permission from the city, which later declared the service illegal. To build a case against the company, officers like Mr. England posed as riders, opening the Uber app to hail a car and watching as miniature vehicles on the screen made their way toward the potential fares.

      But unknown to Mr. England and other authorities, some of the digital cars they saw in the app did not represent actual vehicles. And the Uber drivers they were able to hail also quickly canceled. That was because Uber had tagged Mr. England and his colleagues ? essentially Greyballing them as city officials ? based on data collected from the app and in other ways.


      So Uber magically knew.. using “other ways” that this account created by England was a regulator? Yes, I can see if England set up an account, busted someone and wrote them a citation, the driver could then flag that account as a regulator and ban him. That doesn’t require a whole helluva lot of technology.

      How did they know he was a regulator before he hailed his first ride?

      1. without seeking permission

        The worst sin of all.

      2. Maybe they went here and did a big public records request and got the names of the inspectors.

        1. Actually, the NYTIMES article is somewhat interesting. Again, the whole ‘magic technology’ thing kind of evaporates away, leaving you with a veritable army of Uber employees literally scouring social networking live while a driver is attempting to hail a cab. If the Uber employee gets tingles on the back of his neck, he orders the ride canceled and flags the user.

          If such clues were not enough to confirm a user’s identity, Uber employees would search social media profiles and other information available online. If users were identified as being connected to law enforcement, Uber Greyballed them by tagging them with a small piece of code that read “Greyball” followed by a string of numbers.

          1. They are the heroes America doesn’t deserve.

            1. They are the heroes America doesn’t deserve.

              Damn right.

              Uber no doubt makes its share of genuine screw-ups, but in it’s general goal of giving the regulators a big middle finger, they are as close to a true modern hero as we can hope to find.

              And witness how all the kids with their freshly-minted college diplomas, happily indoctrinated by their aging hippy professors, pour scorn on Uber for the sin of being unsafe, which is the main excuse given for the need for regulation. It’s a crying shame to see young minds, who should naturally feel the desire to fight authority, slavishly kowtowing to it and thinking it’s cool.

            2. But they are the heroes America needs right now.

          2. Veritable army? WTF?

            Probably zero employees were involved beyond programmers. If the credit check didn’t reveal the account being a government account, an automated google search would. I’m sure the man was proud to identify himself on LinkedIn as a freedom-hating bureaucrat.

            It should be as a hard to get vetted on Uber as it was to get a credit card at Sears in the 70’s.

            1. I guarantee you programmers aren’t wasting their time reading facebook posts, and driving to local convenience stores, recording the GUIDs of burner phones.

              1. He means through automated means.

                You can have automation collect all the red flags that goes into the decision, and then have an actual human review the data to make a judgment.

            2. The credit card data would probably be the easiest of all to attach to an undercover inspector. If the card’s a government expense-account card, well, bingo. They might even have their own card number prefixes. If it’s a personal card, then the first time the inspector busted a driver would be the last time until s/he got a new card.

      3. Um…public records?

        1. Check out the article. It’s more complicated than that. But that would be one tool in dozens they might employ.

      4. You have to register with Uber to use the service – give them phone, email and credit card info. Tracing that stuff will put you on to the fuzz.

    2. One technique involved drawing a digital perimeter, or “geofence,” around the government offices on a digital map of a city that Uber was monitoring. The company watched which people were frequently opening and closing the app ? a process known internally as eyeballing ? near such locations as evidence that the users might be associated with city agencies.

      Ok, now I’m hearing bells ringing. Interesting, but it makes a lot of assumptions. I suppose assumptions Uber would be willing to live with– like if you’re hailing a cab anywhere near “government offices”, you ain’t gettin’ Uber. Also, I am interested in the use of “heuristics” here to catch behavioral patterns in using the app.

      Enforcement officials involved in large-scale sting operations meant to catch Uber drivers would sometimes buy dozens of cellphones to create different accounts. To circumvent that tactic, Uber employees would go local electronics stores to look up device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones for sale, which were often the ones bought by city officials working with budgets that were not sizable.

      1. Wow, what a fun game of cat and mouse.

      2. You’re simply point out the stupidity of what gets hired as a journalist at NYT these days.

        The phone number doesn’t matter tall that much. You still have to have a credit card and you will be getting checked. Use the same redit card on more than 2 phones and it set off red flags. But stupid-arrogant bureaucrats don’t know how the real world works, nor does the writer hired by NYT.

        1. I don’t entirely disagree. But after reading the article, I’m looking at it from the regulator’s point of view, and it seems like if said regulators but some effort into this, they could be busting a lot of uber drivers and impounding a lot of cars.

    3. Ok, so we’re not really talking about so much a technological solution, than a gum-shoe, social engineering solution. This is interesting, but I can see Uber having to employ these types of ‘sleuths’ 24×7 to keep up with the new techniques. The only technology I’m seeing here is once a user has been flagged as a ‘threat’, the technology presents the ‘fake’ uber with phantom cars driving around, merely frustrating the official– for a time.

      1. Only if you take NYT’s government-cock-gobbling word as gospel, which you probably shouldn’t.

  5. “They’re beating the cars with metal bats,” the singer Courtney Love posted on Twitter from an Uber car in Paris at a time of clashes between the company and taxi drivers in 2015. Ms. Love said that protesters had ambushed her Uber ride and had held her driver hostage. “This is France? I’m safer in Baghdad.”

    HA! Point to Courtney Love!

  6. So Scott, you’d be completely happy with illegal immigrants developing and using such a tool to avoid ICE stings?

    Just checking whether you are consistent in your beliefs, or partisan…

    1. Is “just checking” the new “just asking questions” which translates to “just being a retard?”

      1. No, I wonder if he applies the same logic to people as he does businesses. A true libertarian would. A faux libertarian wouldn’t. Does he only support this because it’s a law he doesn’t like, as compared to ones he likes.

        It is very, very much American, in terms of the right to free speech, and the arguments around defending the right to speech one doesn’t like.

        My apologies if that actually goes over your head.

        1. Exactly what law is it that prohibits a private citizen from giving another private citizen a ride?

          1. Local ordinances.

        2. Since the difference between a libertarian and an anarchist is that libertarians believe in rule of law, a true libertarian can believe in enforcing border controls and still be a true libertarian.

          I think we will see this become more obvious as we see more slow-motion invasions by Muslims who favor sharia law, which in its current state is completely incompatible with libertarianism (yes, I did watch the ReasonTV video subtitled “The Muslim Case for Liberty”).

          In other words, small-l libertarians are going to have to grapple with the fact that libertarianism is a meme-plex that competes directly with other meme-plexes. Within the borders of a country, libertarianism as a meme-plex seeking its survival and dominance, it MUST defeat other competing meme-plexes.

    2. Er … yes? And also to deal drugs and do sex work!

      Most of us here at Reason have been pretty consistent on these things.

      1. Thanks Scott. It’s what I’ve expected at Reason, though sometimes I find articles with a slant that indicates otherwise. Still a fantastic site!

    3. I do. And I support people using such a tool to avoid speed traps, code enforcements, narc, prostitute stings – *even though * I know that this sort of tool is useful for helping people get away with real crimes.

      1. shouldn’t the definition of a “real crime” be one in which one party is hurt in the act? Speeding, code violations on my own home, narc, prostitution stings, are crimes where both parties win.

  7. Uber was employing people

    tsk tsk, they were contractors

  8. Seems like Uber would do a better job of checking government fraud.

    *realizing that government fraud is redundant

  9. When my regulation-trusting and regulation-worshipping friends tell me how essential it is to properly regulate Uber, I ask them how it is – if regulation works so splendidly in the livery industry – that Bob Simon and Mr. and Mrs. John Nash are all dead.

  10. I have never used uber so quality wise? But I don’t think the goverment is going to stop until they regulated uber out of business or it becomes some kind of public transportation service

    1. The best enforcer of quality is customer complaints that have gone viral and the presence of competitor(s) to which the dissatisfied customers can take their business (Lyft, traditional cabs, rental cars, etc.)
      We don’t need the gov’t enforcing quality (haha, what an oxymoron, when gov’t bureaucracies like the DMV or TSA are usually the worst in customer service because of their de-facto monopoly status).

  11. Uber version of shadow banning.

  12. So when one private citizen offers to sell a ride to another private citizen, exactly what law is it that is being alleged to have been broken in the first place?

    1. The law of “fuck you, that’s why.”

    2. Have you not read the constitution? It clearly says on Article XVM, section VQIII, that what is not explicitly permitted by the government is prohibited.

    3. The law that requires medallions/licensing for that service.

      There is an argument to be made for it — there is absolutely a public safety issue with people getting into random strangers’ cars. As often happens, the legit public safety rationale quickly takes a backseat to rent-seeking.

      1. The pro-medallion-monopoly argument claiming taxis are safer falls flat considering that taxi drivers can be rapists too:


        And it especially falls apart if the taxi riders are allowed to exercise their full 2nd Amendment rights. Of course, in the cities that are fighting Uber in favor of taxicab monopolies, concealed carry is usually outlawed.

      2. This is stupid. There is no “legitimate” public safety concern. People get in strangers cars all the time. I suspect it happened at thousands of bars across the United States last night only without money changing hands. A legitimate concern would be a case where risks are unknown and not reasonably expected for example drinking water with high lead concentrations. Uber offers no risk beyond the risks we take every day interacting with strangers. Those risks are known and understood by those taking them. Helicopter parenting is bad enough why would you endorse helicopter government even in theory?

        1. “People get in strangers cars all the time. I suspect it happened at thousands of bars across the United States last night only without money changing hands”…

          …until later.

      3. “people getting into random strangers’ cars.”

        Not even this is a legit public safety rationale. I take Uber about 2x a week. I’ll never use a taxi again unless I’m forced to. You don’t get into the UberX until a car pulls up with a plate number and driver that both match what’s shown in the app. The bulk of the few charges of assault or kidnapping occur when the passenger doesn’t bother to verify that the car is the Uber she summoned before getting in the car, and it isn’t an Uber car, it’s just some rando psycho’s car. You can’t blame that on Uber.

        In those rare cases when an Uber driver has assaulted a passenger (usually it’s the other way around, passenger assaulting Uber driver), this isn’t occurring more often than with taxi drivers.

  13. Always liked Uber, now I LOVE them for this very reason. Well done guys. Very well done.

  14. Good for Uber. Fuck these bureaucrats. Fuck ’em hard with a nice long cactus.

  15. If it pleases the crown, may I please give someone a ride, on the roads that my taxes pay for, with a car that I pay for permission to drive. If it pleases you, I will even give you taxes on the income said ride provides me…

    I swear, this has gotten so out of hand since 1776…

  16. This is similar to how the brick-and-mortar retail stores want to tear down internet retailers by making them also collect and remit sales tax, instead of demanding that they also be exempt from collecting and remitting sales tax.

    It happened on the local level where I live; a local pizza store opened up next to an older pizza store. The newer store complained to the city that the older store was violating sidewalk advertising ordinances by having a bicycle out front with the store’s logo on it. Why did they have to tear down/punish the older store–why not also put out their own bicycle out front with their own store logo on it?

    Out of disgust with their behavior, I am forever boycotting the newer pizza store for filing the complaint with the city.

    1. I once stayed at a traditional B&B for a portion of a vacation. I happened to mention that later in the week I was staying at an Airbnb. Which, led to her complaining because “they don’t pay taxes”

      Of course, I was paying her in cash explicitly to avoid the lodging tax on our stay. But, I suppose it was only ok for her to dodge taxes.

    2. The nectar of being able to use the “one true monopoly on violence” is what keeps bringing the busy bees back to the flower.

  17. Now someone just needs to create a decentralized database of all regulators so people can use it to restrict their use of more and more services.

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    1. So you were immediately stupid enough to spend all your wad on a luxury car?

  20. Uber is an organization that is founded on an outright and easily provable lie. Uber is NOT a ride share company. It is a ride for hire company, just like a taxi. I’ve used Uber many times, and in NO Case was the driver miraculously already going in my direction and I just hitched a ride. I summon a driver – like a taxi or a limo – they take me to where I ask them to – like a taxi or a limo – and I pay them for doing so and get out – like a taxi or a limo. For Uber to say it isn’t a taxi or a limo service subject to the rules and regulations of said services is preposterously absurd, no different than offering plumbing, electrical & general contracting services as “expertise sharing” and saying work performed isn’t subject to the same regulations & building codes that those directly offering professional plumber, electrician & contractor services must meet. The fact that customers may like it because it’s cheaper is irrelevant. And just because someone applies an misleading label to something, does not make it true.

    1. Most Uber drivers ARE just driving around. But they are private contractors, not employees, so not taxis. Why should taxis pay medallion fees except to their employer, who advertises and gets business for them? That is the root problem.

    2. Enjoy your chains, slaver.

  21. The philosophy, that really took off in the late 70s, that everything is better with government intervention, regulation and control, has really cost our citizens an unconscionable amount of time, money and rights.

    1. “The philosophy, that really took off in the late 70s, that everything is better with government intervention, …”

      Maybe you forgot the 30’s.

      1. The Federal Reserve created an unsustainable boom in the 1920s by lowering interest rates, precipitating the Stock Market crash. And roosevelt’s New Deal was paid for with taxes, destroying jobs and entrepreneurship. He also increased unemployment. So government started the bad times and proceeded to make them worse.

        1. That’s incorrect. The Fed was built to ride out WWI (Opium War 3). The crash occurred because investors realized Bert Hoover was seriously going to use tax laws to enforce the 5 Law making light beer everywhere a federal felony. Before the Crash & Depression, the dry zealots swore prosperity was caused by laws banning alcohol. Afterward they demanded “laws” be respected. Asset-forfeiture introduced by IL senator John Glenn (not relation) proved the death knell of the US banking system. The Fed was a worried and perplexed bystander to a process that cost the GOP the next 5 elections. Look at the Chicago Tribune online–not government teevee–for the real story.

          1. That’s Five and Ten Law… the server conflated the ampersand with a command…

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  23. For the first time ever, I am ashamed to be an Austinite. Here is a clip of Brazilian thugs trying to beat up a suspected Uber driver, then realizing they missed a chance to beat the snot out of a coercing politician!

  24. Let’s face it, some people just enjoy being slaves. When they’re confronted with someone wearing fewer chains than them, they never ask, “Why am I wearing so many chains?” Nope, they only scream, “Put more chains on that guy!”

  25. What’s fascinating about the story is how it fails to identify a single person victimized by the Greyball tool other than the authorities who are unable to operate their stings. Meanwhile, as the story does note, it’s the Uber drivers who faced harassment and had their cars impounded or ticketed by authorities ????? ?? ??
    ????? ???? , which Uber then had to reimburse. And in other countries, Uber drivers (and passengers) had to worry about actual physical attacks from workers in the entrenched taxi cartels.

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