Uber is apparently leveraging the power of technology to take upon those it thinks are violating its terms of service. The list includes members of code enforcement authorities or even city officials who are trying to gain information about Uber’s operations in certain areas. The company is sidestepping them by the simply procedure of identifying and denying the requests they make through its platform.
The news comes from the New York Times. Apparently, the software was initially called as Greyball and later renamed to “violation of terms of service” or VTOS program. The program is apparently capable of deploying data analysis techniques on all the data collected by Uber and in this way, prevent people it deems to be in violation of Uber’s terms of service, from hailing a cab.
The people who fall under this list include those aiming to cause physical damage to drivers, minions from the company’s competitors who are using the platform to find ways to disrupt operations and finally, opponents working together with regulatory officials in a bid to trap Uber drivers. So the long and short of this software and its purpose as per Uber, is the protection of its drivers.
And Uber drivers have felt the need for protection, make no mistake. With conventional platforms like taxis and rental cars finding themselves giving way to Uber, there have been protests that have sometimes taken a violent turn. In France for example, taxi drivers and the police colluded to keep Uber drivers from working. This happened in 2015 after the French government ordered the police to seize the company’s vehicles after protests by taxi drivers.
Something of the sort happened in Portland as well, where law enforcement officials were ordered to stop Uber cars from operating. The easiest way to bust a cab driver is of course, to request him from the app. However, city officials appeared unable to book a cab. That could also have been thanks to the Greyball program.
As for how Greyball/VTOS works, well, details are scarce because barely 50-60 people know about it even within the organization. However, some of the tactics included creating virtual perimeters around authority offices, end rides before reaching destination when one off the drivers accidentally managed to pick someone who was on the list.
Meanwhile, the company appears to have gotten out of its worst phase with authorities. Reportedly, the project is now being focused upon competitors and private corporations who don’t will Uber particularly well, and denying them rides. To me, it appears as if the cab-hailing behemoth has struck upon a very smart way of fighting against the odds and is able to wield the tool to great effect.
There could be legal compunctions of course, if someone was to file a suit against the company for denying it access to rides. But Uber seems to have taken that into account.
It does seem like the company had all sorts of secrets hidden up its sleeve, right?