SAN FRANCISCO — Uber has for years evaded law enforcement authorities around the globe by using a program called Greyball that identified and avoided these authorities, according to a report in the New York Times.
Greyball, which uses data collected from Uber's app and other methods, is part of a larger program called VTOS, short for violations of terms of service, which was created to find people using the ride-hailing service improperly, according to the article, which cited former and current Uber employees.
The San Francisco-based company admitted the program existed, but said its purpose was aimed at rivals and users.
"This program denies ride requests to fraudulent users who are violating our terms of service—whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers," Uber said in a statement.
The revelation comes as Uber, known for its hardball business tactics that have helped the company reach a valuation of nearly $70 billion and override protestations of municipal authorities and taxi unions, is being scrutinized for its treatment of women.
Uber's use of Greyball was recorded on video in 2014, when a code enforcement inspector in Portland, Ore., tried to hail an Uber as part of a sting operation, according to The New York Times. Uber had started operating in Portland without permission from the city. It had "greyballed" the inspector as a city official and showed him a fake version of its app.
“We’re very concerned to hear that this practice continued at least into 2015 and affected other cities," Dylan Rivera, a spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, said to the Times in a statement. “We take any effort to undermine our efforts to protect the public very seriously."
The program got the green light from Uber's legal department, the newspaper reported. Current and former Uber employees spoke with the New York Times on the condition of anonymity about the Greyball program. They also provided documents to the newspaper.
According to the New York Times, Greyball has been used in cities such as Paris, Boston and Las Vegas and in countries such as Australia, China, South Korea and Italy.
Outside legal experts were unsure if the program was legal.
“With any type of systematic thwarting of the law, you’re flirting with disaster,” Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University, told the Times. “We all take our foot off the gas when we see the police car at the intersection up ahead, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But this goes far beyond avoiding a speed trap.”
CEO Travis Kalanick has faced a storm of scrutiny over his management of the company. Late last month, he held long meetings with upset employees and faced criticism from investors after allegations from former engineer Susan Fowler that it dismissed her complaints of sexual harassment.
An Uber driver dashcam video surfaced this week that showed Kalanick berating the driver. The CEO then issued a staff-wide apology in which he admitted that his behavior had to change and that he was seeking leadership help.