It was a trick as daring as it was ingenious. When police or regulators opened the Uber app, they saw exactly what the public saw: dozens of cars crawling through 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 confuse regulators and help its unlicensed taxi drivers evade the law.
While the existence of the tool was later revealed amid great controversy, the precise manner in which it was used and the list of countries where Uber deployed it to deceive authorities – alongside other techniques – has remained a closely guarded 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, foiled 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 service. delivery service, Uber Eats.
Legal experts told the Guardian that the company’s actions are likely to have breached data protection laws.
Uber’s rapid growth in Europe has been aided by tools such as Greyball, which documents show has been 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 authorities seized cars, costing the company €6,000 for each incident. The slideshow, tagged “war stories,” was a plan to explain how Uber could prevent authorities from identifying its cars.
The game manual advised staff to check “eyeballs”, the code of people viewing the app and to cross-reference user details with locations such as police stations. Staff were also advised to fumigate “suspicious users” by other means.
In an October 2014 email, Gore-Coty, Uber’s then-director for Western Europe, said its then-chief executive, Travis Kalanick, wanted staff “access to details of the cardholder”, apparently to identify users involved in law enforcement.
They could then be “greyballed” or added to a list of likely regulators trying to order taxis to collect evidence or seize vehicles. Uber would make sure these people get a “fake view” of the app, complete with phantom cars that never arrived.
In addition to distinguishing individuals, Uber could digitally delineate entire locations, a tactic known as “geofencing”, ensuring that everyone in that area would see the false view.
After Danish transport authorities launched an investigation into Uber in January 2015, Uber’s European legal director, Zac de Kievit, suggested that the company could avoid law enforcement by “managing our technology…to prevent the cops/taxis from ordering runs”.
The next day, a Danish employee emailed Jo Bertram, the company’s then UK director for Northern Europe, outlining a plan to erect “blackout geofences around major police stations”.
The use of Greyball in the Netherlands received a personal seal of approval from Kalanick. In December 2014, after a senior executive in Amsterdam laid out plans to tackle law enforcement with ‘tightened’ use of the software, Kalanick replied, ‘Excellent response and plan moving forward’ .
A spokesperson for Kalanick said he never endorsed the use of Greyball for “unlawful purposes” and did not authorize “any action or program” that would obstruct justice in any country.
Kalanick left the company in 2017, but Gore-Coty still sits on its 11-person global leadership 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 titled “Fighting the app,” which he said was crucial to Uber’s “ability to scale the company”.
Uber’s records also reveal how, in 2015, Brussels staff attempted to obtain inside information about undercover operations by regulators, by listing relatives and friends, under false names, as “mystery shopper” for a recruitment agency that the authorities had hired specifically to help catch the unlicensed. cars.
Gore-Coty, whose emails show he was involved in the scheme, advised using another controversial Uber monitoring tool, known as Heaven or God View, to thwart the sting. This allowed Uber to track the real-time movements of any customer. Gore-Coty told staff to “monitor Heaven live whenever a raid is planned, and sometimes make them feel like they’re going somewhere (i.e. if you see them ordering a driver, talk to the driver and ask him to circle around, call the rider saying he’s stuck in traffic etc instead of canceling right away)”.
Uber promised to limit employee access to God View when the program was criticized in the United States in 2014.
The leaked data reveals that staff discuss the use of Greyball software to evade law enforcement in several other countries, including Russia and Bulgaria. It was also used to prevent its drivers from being subjected to violence from traditional taxi drivers in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.