Uber is now under criminal investigation for snooping on government officials

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As if things couldn’t get any worse for ride-hailing giant Uber Technologies Inc., the company is now under investigation over software it allegedly used to avoid police and transportation regulators, according to a report published by Reuters.

The U.S. Department of Justice has begun a criminal probe concerning software Uber devised known as “Greyball,” created to circumvent government officials attempting to clamp down on Uber cars in areas where the service had not yet been approved.

After a report in the New York Times in March, Uber acknowledged the existence of the software, although said it had prohibited the use of Greyball for the purposes of deceit, and that it was being used to prevent fraud and protect drivers.

An investigation into the software states that Uber used Greyball to identify government officials in certain areas and limited their ability to use the Uber app, thereby escaping censure from such officials who might randomly check drivers. Uber had reportedly used Greyball in Boston, Las Vegas and Portland. The report also says it was used predominantly outside the U.S.

In March, Uber denied the software was being used to evade regulations, rather it was to deny “ride requests to users who are violating our terms of service.” Uber said that might include people who could possibly harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt operations or even government officials colluding with Uber enemies to “entrap drivers.”

The software would allegedly identify such officials through their location, credit card information, the device they were using or even checking social media accounts to ascertain a person’s employment history. After a positive identification was made as a possible enemy of Uber, the person was then “greyballed.” In the case of a greyballed user, Uber would show a fake version of its app. A report by Portland transportation officials said 16 of its staff were denied rides dozens of times.

Uber has said the software was used “exceedingly sparingly” in Portland, prior to the app’s approval in 2015. Despite this, Uber has received a subpoena from a Northern California grand jury seeking to clarify how the software was used and where it was deployed. This does not mean that charges will be brought against Uber, but it does mean the court is looking at a potential crime.

Image: ctj71081 via Flickr