Uber’s chief security officer says the changes won’t be immediate but gradual.
On Friday, The New York Times reported that Uber had developed a tool called Greyball that it used to evade regulators in markets where its ride-hailing service wasn’t legal. Uber defended the use of Greyball to the Times, but this week Uber’s chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, told the BBC that the company will no longer use the tool to evade regulators.
“We are expressly prohibiting its use to target action by local regulators going forward,” Sullivan said.
The tool seeks about a dozen data points on a new user in a specific market, like whether the Uber app is opened repeatedly in or around municipal offices, which credit card is linked to the account, and any publicly available information about the new user on social media. If the data suggests the new user is a regulator in a market where Uber is not permitted, the company will present that user false information about where Uber rides are, showing ghost cars or no cars in the area.
Uber said on Friday that Greyball wasn’t just targeting regulators—it used the tool to prevent riders who might aim “to physically harm drivers,” as well as prevent dispatching rides to competitors who might try to disrupt service. Uber also affirmed that it used Greyball to shut down “opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers.”
But now Uber is walking back on that last use case for Greyball. Sullivan told the BBC this week that “it would take some time” to enforce the company’s new prohibition on using Greyball to blackball regulators, although the tool will still be used to root out other users that might try to violate Uber’s terms of service.
Uber has made a number of reversals in the last few months after a string of bad press. The company launched a self-driving car pilot in San Francisco and then shut the pilot down days later when the California DMV ordered the company to seek a special permit. Uber reversed its decision this month and applied for the permit last week. The company also faced outrage after a former reliability engineer wrote about sexual harassment at Uber and when CEO Travis Kalanick was caught arguing with an Uber driver in a video published by Bloomberg. Kalanick has opened an investigation into the former and apologized for the latter.