‘Greyball’ — Uber’s dodgeball game with law enforcement?

Uber’s dodgy techniques
If you’ve ever seen the movie Dodgeball (A true Underdog story), you’ll reminisce on some of the legendary scenes of swerving, ducking and even at times diving away from a stinging orange ball coming the player’s way. Now, take that scene, replace the players with Uber, and replace the ball with “law enforcement officials” and stretch this game of dodgeball over a period of two years.

Not only do you have yourself one legendary game of dodgeball, but you also have a better perspective around the hype and controversy around Uber’s program called “Greyball”. This program surveys and scans law enforcement officials whenever Uber arrives to a new city. Uber has been hit with some damning reports as of late and the New York Times recently reported that Uber has landed in some hot water over this program.

How it works
Here’s the basic premise behind how “Greyball works” – The app would tag certain people such as law enforcement officials and anyone linked to the police authority in a particular area. Greyball then monitors the activities of these people in the areas and how they use Uber. If anyone of these persons that were ‘tagged’ were to request an Uber, their app would show a set of fake cars or that no Ubers were available in the area. Using the dodgeball analogy, Greyball gave the ability for Uber to almost never get hit with that orange ball – i.e. escaping the wrath of law enforcement officials with expert skill.

Greyball uses advanced techniques to gather information as to who these law enforcement officials are– they could track credit card information that seemed to be tied to a police institution or authorities. Furthermore, Greyball can scan the Internet for social media profiles and see if they are linked to law enforcement.

If you think about it, it really is a genius piece of technology. However, if you really think about it, it’s walking on ethical thin ice. Uber is almost the epitome of what it means to be a disruptor. A technology that truly rocked the transport industry to its core. Disruptive technologies at times tend to bend the law. Many feel that Uber with the Greyball technology bent the law a bit too far this time.

The reason this technology was implemented was due to legal issues that Uber got themselves into when trying to open their services in new locations that may not approve of the Uber model. Uber counters that many of their drivers were being attacked or their cars were being unfairly impounded in several countries. Some of these locations included Melbourne, China, France.

Uber has subsequently responded by saying they will no longer use it to avoid law enforcement and authorities and have deactivated that part of Greyball. Although they still maintain that they were only protecting drivers from violent taxi and limousine drivers.

The dilemma of disruptive technologies
The Greyball saga brings up an entirely different dilemma. As an end-user when you are pressing accepting the terms and conditions on various phone applications, do you know what you are getting yourself into? How is information being used and the integrity of individual’s data being preserved? Other than some techies and disruptive enthusiasts, Greyball was largely an unknown piece of technology to the everyday Uber user. In fact, after yet another ethical incident involving the Uber company, many users are beginning to question how they feel about the app.

Uber is undoubtedly the largest known disruptive technology of the past few years. As an idea, it grew much faster than its implications. Greyball is a microcosm of disruptive technologies. Its brilliant thoughts executed over a short period of time. The long-term implications of these fast inventions however are not always foreseen. Even Uber’s management seems to be struggling recently as the President and other top executives have left the company over internal ethical concerns.

It makes you question where all the noise created by disruptive technologies such as Uber is going. Why has Greyball made so many people uncomfortable? It’s because it’s disrupting the way things usually are. It’s challenging the traditional notions on how businesses are run and also on the protection of personal information. It has put a questions in many people’s minds as to whether all this disruption is good for a balanced society. Then again as Alice Lane so poignantly says “changing the world is always disruptive.”



New York Times