Uber used Greyball fake app to evade police across Europe, leak reveals | Uber

It was a trick as audacious as it was ingenious. When police or regulators opened the Uber app, they would see exactly what the public saw: dozens of cars crawling around the city, waiting to be summoned.

But there was one crucial difference: these cars were fake.

Uber had built a dummy version of its own app, a secret tool known as Greyball, designed to throw regulators off the scent and help its unlicensed cab drivers evade the law.

While the existence of the tool was later revealed amid great controversy, the precise way in which it was used and the list of countries where Uber deployed it to fool the authorities – alongside other techniques – has remained a closely held secret. Uber said it stopped using the tool in 2017.

Now the Uber files, a cache of confidential documents leaked to the Guardian, can reveal how Uber monitored, outwitted and evaded police and regulators across Europe – with the full knowledge of executives including Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, who now runs the company’s food delivery service, Uber Eats.

The Uber files is a global investigation based on a trove of 124,000 documents that were leaked to the Guardian by Mark MacGann, Uber’s former chief lobbyist in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The data consist of emails, iMessages and WhatsApp exchanges between the Silicon Valley giant’s most senior executives, as well as memos, presentations, notebooks, briefing papers and invoices.

The leaked records cover 40 countries and span 2013 to 2017, the period in which Uber was aggressively expanding across the world. They reveal how the company broke the law, duped police and regulators, exploited violence against drivers and secretly lobbied governments across the world.

To facilitate a global investigation in the public interest, the Guardian shared the data with 180 journalists in 29 countries via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The investigation was managed and led by the Guardian with the ICIJ.

In a statement, Uber said: “We have not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values. Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we’ve done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come.”

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What are the Uber files?

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The Uber files is a global investigation based on a trove of 124,000 documents that were leaked to the Guardian by Mark McGann, Uber’s former chief lobbyist in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The data consists of emails, iMessages and WhatsApp exchanges between the Silicon Valley giant’s most senior executives, as well as memos, presentations, notebooks, briefing papers and invoices.

The leaked records cover 40 countries and span 2013 to 2017, the period in which Uber was aggressively expanding around the world. They reveal how the company broke the law, duped police and regulators, exploited violence against drivers and secretly lobbied governments around the world.

To facilitate a global investigation in the public interest, the Guardian shared the data with 180 journalists in 29 countries via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The investigation was managed and led by the Guardian with the ICIJ.

In a statement, Uber said: “We have not and will not make excuses for past behavior that is clearly not in line with our present values. Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we’ve done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come.”

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Legal experts have told the Guardian that the company’s actions are likely to have breached data protection laws.

Uber’s rapid growth in Europe was helped by tools such as Greyball, which documents reveal was used in countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Denmark.

Instructions for using Greyball appeared in a 2015 internal Uber presentation documenting the company’s experience in Brussels, where the authorities had impounded cars, costing the company €6,000 for each incident. The slideshow, marked “war stories”, was a blueprint for how Uber could stop the authorities from identifying its cars.

The playbook advised staff to check “eyeballs”, code for people viewing the app, and cross-check users’ details with locations such as police stations. Staff were also advised to smoke out “suspicious users” by other means.

In one email in October 2014, Gore-Coty, then Uber’s western Europe head, said its then chief executive, Travis Kalanick, wanted staff to “access cardholder details”, apparently to identify users involved in enforcement.

A spokesperson for Kalanick said he had never approved the use of Greyball for any ‘illegal purpose’. Photograph: VCG/Visual China Group/Getty Images

They could then be “greyballed”, or added to a list of probable regulators trying to order cabs to gather evidence or impound vehicles. Uber would ensure such people were shown a “fake view” of the app, featuring phantom cars that never arrived.

As well as singling out individuals, Uber could digitally rope off entire locations, a tactic known as “geofencing”, ensuring that everyone within that zone would be shown the fake view.

After Danish transport authorities launched an investigation into Uber in January 2015, Uber’s European legal director, Zac de Kievit suggested the company could avoid enforcement by “managing our technology … to stop cops/taxis from ordering rides”.

The following day, a Danish employee emailed Joe Bertram, then the company’s British head of northern Europe, outlining a plan to erect “blackout geofences around main police stations”.

The use of Greyball in the Netherlands received a personal seal of approval from Kalanick. In December 2014, after a senior staff member in Amsterdam outlined plans to combat enforcement with “tightened” use of the software, Kalanick responded: “Great response and plan moving forward.”

A spokesperson for Kalanick said he never approved the use of Greyball for any “illegal purpose” and had not authorized “any actions or programs” that would obstruct justice in any country.

Kalanick left the company in 2017 but Gore-Coty still sits on its 11-strong global executive team, overseeing Uber Eats, the food delivery arm that is increasingly Uber’s profit engine.

Gore-Coty discussed the benefits of Greyball in an email sent to colleagues in 2014 that included a section entitled “fighting enforcement”, which he said was crucial to Uber’s “ability to scale the business”.

The Uber files also reveal how in 2015, staff in Brussels tried to obtain inside information on sting operations by regulators, signing up relatives and friends, under fake names, as “mystery shoppers” for a recruitment agency authorities had hired specifically to help catch unlicensed cars.

Uber's Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty
Uber’s Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Gore-Coty, whose emails show he was involved in the plan, advised using another controversial Uber surveillance tool, known as Heaven or God View, to thwart the sting. It allowed Uber to track the real-time movements of any customer. Gore-Coty told staff to “monitor Heaven live every time there’s a raid planned, and sometimes make them feel they are getting somewhere (ie if you see them ordering a driver, speak to the driver and ask him to do circles, to call rider saying he’s blocked in traffic etc instead of canceling right away)”.

Uber promised to limit employee access to God View when the program came under fire in the US in 2014.

The leaked data reveals staff discussing having used Greyball software to evade enforcement in several other countries, including Russia and Bulgaria. It was also used to avoid its drivers being subjected to violence from traditional taxi drivers in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.