Money Consumer How Australian transport authorities played cat and mouse with Uber’s Greyball
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How Australian transport authorities played cat and mouse with Uber’s Greyball

Uber launched in Sydney in 2014 but was not legal until December 2015. Photo: ABC News
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Investigators were forced to create multiple false identities with the assistance of banks and phone companies to launch covert “sting” operations against ride share company Uber when it began in Australia.

The extent of the covert operations undertaken against Uber drivers has been revealed by a former senior transport safety investigator as part of a Four Corners investigation into the ride-sharing giant.

The revelation comes as Uber is trying to rehabilitate its corporate image following several years of scandal, before an expected US stock market listing this year that could value the company at tens of billions of dollars.

Peter Wells was the director of transport safety and compliance with NSW Roads and Maritime Services when Uber launched its ride-share service UberX in Sydney in 2014.

UberX, which allows customers to hire drivers in their private vehicles via its smartphone app, was at the time deemed illegal in NSW because privately registered cars were being used for business purposes.

“The overriding concern at the start-up was how do we know this is safe for the vehicles and for criminal history checks and medical checks of the drivers?” Mr Wells told Four Corners.

NSW transport investigators working for Mr Wells began ordering UberX rides through the smartphone app and taking rides, then fining drivers for breaches of transport and safety regulations.

But the investigators quickly found they were being blocked from using the app by Uber, which was accessing their phone and credit card details.

It later emerged Uber was identifying and blocking investigators using a spyware program called Greyball.

Mr Wells told Four Corners his investigators had to take extraordinary measures to counter Uber’s tactics.

Mr Wells said his unit negotiated with banks and phone companies, which issued investigators with credit cards and phone numbers in false names.

“It was certainly an unusual thing for a regulator to have to do in that area,” he said.

We had to have many credit cards. We had to have many SIM cards to be able to assume new identities as it were and be very careful not to do anything illegal ourselves.

“And we took legal opinions to make sure we were within the law, but so that we couldn’t be traced by Uber. So we’re essentially constantly a new ‘customer X’ that they couldn’t tell who was who.”

Uber’s ThreatOps used to ‘dig up dirt’

The use of Greyball by Uber was first revealed in early 2017 by the New York Times.

It was a key part of an aggressive strategy Uber pursued under co-founder Travis Kalanick to establish UberX across the world, amid fierce opposition from authorities and the taxi industry.

Uber says it has discontinued its use.

The NSW government legalised UberX in December 2015 and announced a compensation package for taxi plate owners who had suffered financial losses due to less business. By 2017, UberX was legal in every Australian state.

Blair Davies, chief executive of the Australian Taxi Industry Association, said state governments were “outplayed and outfoxed” by Uber.

They were deliberately setting about to enter a foreign country, Australia, and defeat Australian laws through their technology,” he said.

“Greyball was a very effective way of stopping the governments from being able to enforce their laws and forcing Australian governments to change their laws”.

Revelations about the use of Greyball in the New York Times were followed by disclosures by former Uber security analyst Ric Jacobs about the operations of Uber’s secretive Threat Operations division in San Francisco.

The so-called ThreatOps division allegedly devised ways to undermine authorities and Uber’s ride-share competitors.

“This entire ThreatOps team inside of Uber … was pretty much made up of a bunch of ex-CIA, FBI type guys who would travel around the world, spending millions of dollars investigating competitors,” New York Times technology reporter Mike Isaac told Four Corners.

Investigating taxi companies, digging up dirt on folks. And just sort of spy-type stuff that is kind of crazy to go on at a tech company.”

Uber could be worth up to $120 billion

Mr Kalanick was forced to resign as Uber global chief executive in mid-2017 following further scandals, including allegations made by a former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler, of a culture of sexual harassment inside the company.

Mr Kalanick has been replaced as chief executive by Dara Khosrowshahi, a former head of travel booking website Expedia, who has pledged that Uber will “do the right thing”.

Mr Khosrowshahi has said Uber will pursue a stock exchange listing this year in the United States, with predictions the company could be valued at up to $US120 billion.

Sarah Kaine, associate professor with the University of Technology Sydney’s Centre for Business and Social Innovation, told Four Corners that Uber’s aggressive tactics were sometimes described as “kind of a modern Wild West approach”.

“Where if there’s a market there to be taken, we’re just going to take it,” she said.

“Just try and stop us. We’re riding in with our sheriffs, and we’re gonna take this town.

“I kind of think of it more as the digital equivalent of that ‘greed is good’ mentality.

The Gordon Gekko mentality, but in a digital space. Which is, ‘We will do this. We can do this, and no one’s going to stop us’.”

An Uber Australian spokeswoman said the company has overhauled its culture.

“We have made significant changes to our leadership team, including our CEO, and to the fundamentals of how the company operates, putting integrity at the core of everything we do,” she said.

She said Uber conducted an audit of the use of Greyball and its use has been prohibited.

“Today, Uber actively works with governments and stakeholders in all the communities in which we operate,” she said.

Watch The Uber Story on iview.

-ABC

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