By on May 5, 2017

Uber (freestocks.org/Flickr)

Don’t look now, but the ride-sharing company everybody loves to hate is in trouble yet again. The Justice Department is reportedly opening an investigation into Uber’s not-so-secret “Greyball” tools, which can be used to circumvent law enforcement attempts to interfere with Uber’s business operations.

According to sources inside Uber, “Greyball” was originally developed to help protect Uber drivers from potential threats to their safety, such as unionized taxi drivers and other people who expressed their displeasure with Uber’s service in violent terms. The company soon realized Greyball could also be enhanced to help prevent “sting” operations in areas where ride-sharing services are illegal and/or heavily regulated.

I have no idea whether or not Uber will survive this unwanted federal attention; I’m reminded of the phrase used in the book Dune regarding “fools who put themselves in the way of the Harkonnen fist.” More interesting to me than that is the comment in the NYT article that some Uber employees had concerns about whether “Greyball” was “ethical.” That, I think, is the fascinating question.

Long-time readers know that I am at the very least ambivalent regarding the “gig economy” and Uber’s exploitation of its drivers. Regarding Greyball, however, I have far more moral clarity.

There is nothing unethical about Uber’s decision to deny service to government officials, would-be “sting” operators, or anyone else for that matter. The whole idea behind Uber is that it is a private enterprise, not a government-sanctioned monopoly like the NYC “taxi medallion” scam/scheme. If you are a taxi operator in New York, you give up control over all sorts of things — the vehicle you use, the drivers you hire, the fare you charge, even the routes that drivers are permitted to take. In exchange for that, you’re given a share in a monopoly so exclusive that medallion holders complain when they sell for a quarter-million dollars. Obviously, the fellow who just paid $241,000 for a taxi medallion isn’t going to drive the cab himself. So where’s the morality in all that?

Most of the municipalities where Uber operates in an undocumented, dreamer-like fashion prohibit ride-sharing because they want to protect those monopolies. Sometimes it’s out of concern for passenger access or safety, but more often it’s just money talking. I don’t think Uber has any ethical obligation to let those people run sting operations against them. If they want to deny rides to government mandarins or their enforcement thugs, then I don’t personally have an ethical issue with that.

The Founding Fathers felt the same way. American citizens have the right to avoid incriminating themselves, and they have the right to avoid entrapment. Greyball simply aids Uber drivers in availing themselves of those protections. There’s nothing unethical or immoral about that. We are not yet at the stage where obedience to city officials has a moral or ethical dimension. Not yet.

Now for your take. Do you think Uber is in the right?

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66 Comments on “QOTD: Fifty Shades of Greyball?...”


  • avatar
    Geekcarlover

    Über drivers are independent contractors, a private business. Businesses are allowed to fire customers, people who aren’t worth the hassle. I see no real difference here.

    • 0 avatar
      delow48

      Unless you are asked to bake a cake for a gay wedding. Then you are required to take all of those customers.

      • 0 avatar
        bikegoesbaa

        Likewise, you’re not allowed to refuse to let black people sit at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s you own. Cry me a river.

        • 0 avatar
          SwampBuggy

          These situations aren’t the same. Woolworth’s Lunch Counter refused service solely because the customer was black. The bakery, unless they have great gaydar, have probably served LGBT people before and they claim they do not object to doing so. They believe their faith does not allow them to participate in a gay wedding, which is different. If the gentlemen in Greensboro would have requested Woolworth’s to cater a NAACP meeting then it would be more analogous.

  • avatar
    brawnychicken333

    “We are not yet at the stage where obedience to city officials has a moral or ethical dimension. Not yet.”

    Many many people do think it is moral and ethical to be obedient to the political classes. As long as it’s their side in charge.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      This isn’t a moral or ethical issue, it’s a legal one. You can’t write software to specifically prevent regulators and law enforcement officers from enforcing laws and regulations and more than a grow-op or meth lab could. There’s this little thing called “obstruction of justice”.

      If Uber wants to operator legally in a particular jurisdiction, they need to convince people to change the laws and regulations. “Because disruption!” or “the existing companies are too slow/grumpy/expensive” isn’t carte-blanche to break the law.

      • 0 avatar
        brawnychicken333

        If it illegal to write software to skirt regulators and law enforcement-why do radar detectors exist? The only purpose for a radar detector is to evade police.

        I think Uber spends lots of time and money convincing various legislative bodies to change laws actually.

        How is in any sense moral to prevent someone from giving someone else a ride for money? Where’s that line stop? I can’t accept gas money from a friend to bring him to the airport?

        So no, I disagree. I will not obey laws which are immoral-assuming the consequences aren’t too severe. There a lot of laws I find immoral that I do obey because the risk reward ratio is bad. But there are a lot of laws that most of choose not to follow regardless of the consequences.

        • 0 avatar
          psarhjinian

          “If it illegal to write software to skirt regulators and law enforcement-why do radar detectors exist? The only purpose for a radar detector is to evade police”

          And radar detectors aren’t universally legal for that reason: not all jurisdictions are okay with people proactively skirting the law.

          “I think Uber spends lots of time and money convincing various legislative bodies to change laws actually.”

          No, what Uber does is set up shop somewhere and, given that they’re using Greyball, doing so in a way to avoid being caught doing something they know full well is illegal.

          Imagine if a meth lab had something similar to Greyball; something that would allow them to know if someone coming to visit them was a police officer or regulator? Would you be okay with that?

          “How is in any sense moral to prevent someone from giving someone else a ride for money? Where’s that line stop? I can’t accept gas money from a friend to bring him to the airport?”

          One, this isn’t about you and your car, this is about a multi-billion dollar company that’s practically the textbook definition of a rentier capitalist.

          You can do that, provided you follow local legislation and your insurance company’s guidelines. If you don’t want to, then get the law changed.

          Uber decided not to do that: they decided to set up in places they knew they weren’t allowed to, and put in technology specifically designed to avoid getting caught doing something they knew was illegal. And this isn’t just one driver, this is a company with a multi-billion dollar market cap and a veritable army of lawyers.

          The grown-up, civilized way to handle this would be to lobby and/or set up shop in another city that’s fine this behaviour and/or challenge the law on constitution grounds. This isn’t the Randian Paradise of Mogadishu: laws and regulations are arrived at by consensus, and if Uber wants to participate in and benefit from a society that’s governed by law and democracy, then they can damn well play by the rules.

          • 0 avatar
            Land Ark

            You are not obligated to commit a crime in front of a law enforcement official. If you run a meth lab, and an officer shows up at your door looking for evidence without a warrant, you can refuse to let him in.

          • 0 avatar
            bikegoesbaa

            “Imagine if a meth lab had something similar to Greyball; something that would allow them to know if someone coming to visit them was a police officer or regulator? Would you be okay with that?”

            If a meth lab had an app that showed them pictures of known undercover cops so that they know not to sell drugs to them I would expect that app to be legal.

            I am also OK with that app existing.

          • 0 avatar
            jkross22

            “laws and regulations are arrived at by consensus”

            That’s a rather naive view of how laws and regs are created.

          • 0 avatar
            brawnychicken333

            Comparing Uber to a meth lab. Talk about false equivalencies eh?

            See, it isn’t really about a multi-billion dollar company. The multi-billion dollar company (who, by the way, has never turned a profit) allows individuals to rent out their car. In essence the anti-uber people are saying you are not allowed to drive people around for money without express permission from some governmental authority. I have a problem with that.

            We do not need government approval to do just about anything which does not violate another persons rights. IE, I can’t (morally or legally) dump toxic waste down my drain because that violates the rights of others downstream of me. I can’t shoot someone because that violates their right to their own life. Etc, this isn’t rocket science and really doesn’t need to be spelled out.

            Selling a ride in my car for X dollars does not violate the rights of the taxi medallion holder. It only violates ordinances put in place to protect their monopoly and/or insure the leeches at city hall get their cut.

          • 0 avatar
            ToddAtlasF1

            98% of US states allow radar detectors, which is more of a consensus on their legality than there is an actual consensus on the need to strip human rights in the name of saving all the fuel for private jets and yachts.

      • 0 avatar
        Frank Galvin

        Obstruction of justice – a widely abused ham handed indictment, cousin to “mail fraud.” Coding to avoid a taxi commission sting and local code enforcement is at best, a misdemeanor. The manner in which Uber used greyball is a local issue so look for Justice to serve up an indictments for mail fraud.

      • 0 avatar
        George B

        psarhjinian, I seriously doubt that it would be illegal to write software to selectively prevent illegal activity. Greyball identifies combinations of locations, inexpensive “burner” phones, billing information, user behavior, and public information about specific users to decide not to offer service. This is like a call girl not offering service to a person she strongly suspects is a police officer based on a combination of clues. The suspect can’t be charged with the potential crime if the suspect decides not to commit the crime even if this is inconvenient for the police investigation.

  • avatar
    No Nickname Required

    If Uber is operating illegally, then no they are not “in the right”.

    However, if it has not entered into a binding contract, a private business may refuse to provide a product or service for a customer when doing so would pose a risk to its reputation and/or finances. On this basis alone, since I know nothing about “greyball”, I would say that Uber has no ethical obligation to provide services to someone who may be trying to ruin its reputation .

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      You can refuse to provide service to anyone, more or less.

      What you cannot do is:
      * Refuse to provide service to a protected class, on the grounds that they’re a protected class
      * Refuse to provide service with the intent of avoiding laws or regulations.

      Uber could refuse to operate in a city in which their service isn’t legal, or where there’s not enough money to support them. Uber cannot refuse to pick up a disabled person, or a bylaw officer if they’re identifying them as such in the first place.

      • 0 avatar
        jkross22

        In what protected category does a bylaw officer belong?

      • 0 avatar

        “* Refuse to provide service with the intent of avoiding laws or regulations.”

        Deciding that you don’t want to commit a crime in front of a law enforcement officer is itself a crime?

        As for a LEO being a member of a protected class, while our public employees think they are a special class with aristocratic privileges, so far it’s legal to not do business with a cop if you don’t want to.

        One suspects that if it were state agents using Greyball and not a private sector entity, you’d be just fine with it.

    • 0 avatar
      2manycars

      “Legal” and “moral” are not the same thing. Most laws have no moral basis and are little more than gang rules intended to preserve the hegemony of the political class. I see no ethical problem in ignoring such “laws” — the only issue being the practical matter of punishment by the warlords, gangsters, and racketeers of government for the heinous crime of running afoul of their diktats.

      • 0 avatar
        brawnychicken333

        Exactly.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        “I see no ethical problem in ignoring such “laws””

        So it’s okay if I dump waste in your drinking water, then? After all, it’s only the political class’ diktats that make polluting illegal.

        • 0 avatar
          Sam Hall

          He said “most”. Anti-polluting laws are justified both on a moral and an economic basis (look up ‘negative externality’.

          Laws artificially limiting the number of people who can sell rides have no moral justification and create an economic burden on the public without providing any offsetting benefit (look up ‘deadweight loss’)

          Taxi unions are the dictionary definition of rent-seeking “capitalists”, lobbying for medallion laws purely to limit competition so they can jack up their prices. Between that and the tax dollars that pay for enforcement of medallions, I have no problem–none at all–with Uber providing a means for drivers to exercise their right to freedom of association in the service of evading that kind of law.

          If the cities want to be clever, they can pick from among gay, transgender, etc officers to run these stings. And of course someone might decide to sue them in turn for discriminating in handing out those duties…

          • 0 avatar
            S2k Chris

            “If the cities want to be clever, they can pick from among gay, transgender, etc officers to run these stings. And of course someone might decide to sue them in turn for discriminating in handing out those duties…”

            Nah, you can refuse service to gay, transgender, etc people, you just can’t refuse it BECAUSE they are gay or transgender. Hell, “police officer” ain’t a protected class, you can refuse because they’re police offices.

        • 0 avatar
          bikegoesbaa

          Let’s take a time machine to 1850.

          It’s illegal to teach slaves to read, or help them if they run away.

          I assume that as a law and order guy you’re OK with this and would encourage others to follow these laws too?

        • 0 avatar
          jkross22

          Are environmental laws objectively immoral? How is clean drinking water immoral?

        • 0 avatar
          brawnychicken333

          Classic modern liberal argument. Stupid laws have to be obeyed because really important ones also need to be obeyed. Implying or inferring that something terrible will happen if we don’t obey the stupid laws-which largely exist due to effective lobbying and fear mongering.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    “American citizens have the right to avoid incriminating themselves, and they have the right to avoid entrapment”

    So, let’s say you open a business, and you dump waste oil in the sewer and refuse to pay employees periodically. However, you have this neat software that allows you to know when a bylaw officer or suchlike is coming into your shop and you use it to magically “close for the day” so as to avoid inspection.

    That’s not the “right to avoid entrapment”, that’s full-on obstruction, and it’s exactly what Uber is going.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Sounds to me like they are just “undocumented”.

      No person is illegal.

      Corporations are people.

      Therefore, no corporation is illegal.

      They are just undocumented.

      • 0 avatar
        CarnotCycle

        My corporation is an undocumented refugee from the Cayman Islands.

      • 0 avatar
        Whittaker

        Correct.
        The dude on my corner who sells pot is not a drug dealer. He is an unlicensed pharmacist.

        On topic, if I drive a different route to avoid a DUI checkpoint because I had a couple, am I obstructing justice?

        • 0 avatar
          pwrwrench

          Yes, you should be on Death Row!

        • 0 avatar
          wumpus

          I’m pretty sure that if they see you do it, such actions get tacked above and beyond the DUI. No idea how tested it is in court.

          There may have been a change in “flashing your lights to warn of a cop” laws. I suspect this decision will be critical in greyball analysis (assuming it is in the right jurisdiction).

    • 0 avatar
      Frank Galvin

      That’s not obstruction. The owner is a scumbag – but unless he’s avoiding service of process, burning payroll records after being notified of a subpoena, and actively doing something to prevent the actual enforcement of a law enforcement investigation – he’s not obstructed anything if he has not been informed of such proceedings.

    • 0 avatar
      duffman13

      who is uber not paying or dumping waste on here?

      In that respect, how do you feel about waze’s crowdsourced traffic camera and police officer warnings? I know for a fact I slow down around them so I don’t get ticketed. Is that obstruction of justice too?

      How do you feel about using a VPN to anonymize you internet traffic?

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    I think this is the least of their legal issues currently.

    As a concept I agree with Uber. As a company I would not do business with them. Starting with penalizing drivers because one driver in Chicago stopped a mass shooting.

    Between “Hell” and the “clever and sophisticated” algorithm used to defraud drivers and paying passengers, not to mention all the other legal issues they have right now “Greyball” may be the only ethical thing they are doing at the moment.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    To me the idea of services like Uber and Lyft are a great idea. If I’m doing nothing else, why shouldn’t I be able to give someone a ride using my own car? have a framework of moderate standards (driver vetting, etc.) and leave it be.

    it’s too bad that Uber (the company) constantly acts like too much of a pack of sh!theads for me to have much sympathy for them.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    Current laws are largely irrelevant as existing law hasn’t caught up to the technology. People like ride sharing, and new laws will have to written to regulate the technology, because that’s what government does.
    .
    .

  • avatar
    S2k Chris

    Full on #TeamUber on this issue. I have zero problem with breaking a law or avoiding officials that exist solely to protect a monopoly. Comparisons to things like dumping oil in the sewer are ridiculous red herrings.

    • 0 avatar
      bikegoesbaa

      “Comparisons to things like dumping oil in the sewer are ridiculous red herrings.”

      Agreed.

      Here’s a better point of comparison:
      1) Say I want to start an appliance repair service
      2) But there was a local law passed for the benefit of the 5 existing appliance repair services in town
      3) Saying that there could only be 5 appliance repair services in town
      4) And that if I want to start an appliance repair service I first need to buy out one of the established guys for $250k

      In this case, I submit that it’s reasonable and moral for me to just start my appliance repair service in violation of the law, while deliberately avoiding doing work in front of anybody who is involved with maintaining or enforcing the existing appliance repair racket.

  • avatar
    whitworth

    “Don’t look now, but the ride-sharing company everybody loves to hate”

    I think this almost exclusively the traditional yellow cab taxi industry and politicians extracting graft that “hate” Uber.

    Everyone I know that uses Uber absolutely loves it. I can’t tell you how many people I know are so much more careful about getting a ride home after drinking with Uber than before when you had to hail a yellow cab. It’s a very useful public service a private company provides that doesn’t cost the taxpayers a penny. In fact they extract taxes from it.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Y’all need to read “Reefer Madness” by Eric Schlosser. It’s about the black market economy (sex, drugs, and cheap labor in the American Black Market Economy).

    Some things have been part of human activity since time immemorial regardless of their legality or illegality.

    “Greyball” does not make me clutch my pearls and delete Uber from my phone.

  • avatar
    Frank Galvin

    One of my law professors once quipped in class, “I don’t ask myself if the client’s desires is moral or ethical, I only care if its legal, and if it is, I’ll do it, I expect more out of you all.”

    This was a guy that always traveled with a portable printer to bring to the bedside of his wealthy clients who wanted to write Junior or wife #5 out of the will. For his other clients with offshore entanglements, he would never directly work on the issue. His advice – always engage the local “facilitator” (while making the money rub hand sign).

    Keep it legal, and for everything else, never complain and never explain. And above all else, “never write when you can speak; never speak when you can nod; and never nod when you can wink.”

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    What, Gub’Mint selectively enacting and enforcing laws to create/perpetuate a (near) monopoly? “Shocked, I tell you I’m shocked!”
    There are many aspects to this. In another area most USA states have public utilities which are authorized monopolies that are supposed to follow certain rules. Take a look at photos of cities in the early days of electrification. There was a rats nest of wires hanging from poles and buildings. I have no doubt that there were fires and electrocutions because of this chaos. So is it better to have a regulated monopoly for things like this or “competition” and chaos?
    In the late 1990s companies like Enron found a “surplus” in the California treasury and decided to steal it. Through TV ads and “news reports”, now called “fake news”, they managed to convince enough people to pass an initiative to “De-regulate the electric monopoly”. It was claimed that, buying and selling electricity up to six times before it was used, would make it cheaper.
    Now utility customers in Commie-Fornia are paying extra every month on their bills to pay for this rip-off.
    Back to Uber, I can see “open competition” leading to several cars trying to pick up a potential rider and perhaps resorting to violence.
    That’s the kind of mythical Dodge City “market” we need.

    • 0 avatar
      bikegoesbaa

      “Back to Uber, I can see “open competition” leading to several cars trying to pick up a potential rider and perhaps resorting to violence.”

      Uber has provided several billion rides by this point.

      Please provide an example of it happening even once.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      The problem with your Enron example is the fact that the regulation that was passed wasn’t actually deregulation but more regulation. It’s not deregulating anything if you prevent a company from making and distributing electricity. There were companies that were buying their own electricity back from Enron. Creating a private monopoly to provide power also doesn’t seem to be working to well. In Michigan are well regulated monopoly has been ignoring the need to build replacement power plants for years. Even when they knew that government regulators were not going to let them postpone the decommissioning of old plants any longer they still haven’t done a thing. For that special privileges that you think is so great, there is no accountability. Those executives that made these decisions to line their own pockets instead of rebuilding their outdated infrastructure should go to jail.

  • avatar
    newenthusiast

    As I know nothing about Greyball, and very little about Uber, (other than its CEO seeems to be a unpleasant person, and that Google is suing them for corporate espionage), I need a point of clarification:

    Is this a matter of using it to hide the fact that individual operators may be unlicensed to be driving for Uber? (they aren’t direct employees of Uber, correct?)

    Or is this a way to circumvent laws that a municipality has passed to ban them from operating within that municipality’s borders?

    If it’s the former, that’s not cool. If you have lost your DL, or its suspended, or are otherwise not supposed to be driving, then I could see where Uber could be helping people drive illegally.

    If its the latter…… I’d say obey the law, but the law itself may not really have anything to do with any deep ethical dilemma. Its probably in place for the usual reasons: who gave the local legislature the most money?

    I’ve never used Uber or Lyft, so really, I don’t care either way.

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-Iron

      It is the latter. AFAIK Uber only hires licensed drivers and may even do a cursory background check. Many municipalities ban anyone other than the local taxi monopoly from providing rides. The app is intended to prevent the Uber drivers from get caught in stings.

  • avatar
    S2k Chris

    Wut?

  • avatar
    hgrunt

    The chrysknife of public opinion has been shown, and it cannot be resheathed until it has drawn blood.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    So, the first time I read about this, I was wondering, “What’s the crime here that justifies a Federal investment?”

    So far, no one in this thread (or elsewhere) has supplied an answer. I don’t accept “evading regulatory enforcement” as an answer. It has been cogently argued elsewhere (and not just by libertarians) that, at least in the U.S., there is a recent surfeit of criminalizing regulatory statutes.

    At most, it seems in some localities, Uber is violating a regulatory statute . . . which still doesn’t explain why this is a federal matter, rather than one exclusively within the jurisdiction of state and local authorities. Are we going to see FBI agents running speed traps soon?

    Back to the main topic: those who argue against the criminalization of regulatory statutes point out that their numerosity means that just about everyone can be a criminal (everyone who has never exceeded the posted speed limit, raise your hand). And the implication of that fact is that it gives a prosecutorial authority unlimited discretion in its choice of whom will be the object of law enforcement’s interest, without regard to the motive for that interest.

    Uber at the moment seems to have found itself on the receiving end of the media jackal-pack’s attention for any number of sins, so along comes a federal prosecutorial authority that has decided to get interested in the company’s activities. I’m glad to know that, in the particular community where this is happening, real crime (as most of us understand it) is so low that the US Attorney’s office (and the local FBI) has time and resources for this kind of activity. Maybe some budget and staff cuts are in order.

    And no, I’m not particularly an Uber fanboi and am only an occasional user.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    I can’t comment on Uber for professional reasons.

    I can say two things: 1) as a general matter, it’s almost always illegal to attempt to circumvent proper law enforcement procedures, and 2) Jack is not well versed in rules applicable to common carriers, and is painting a very misleading picture of the law as a result.

    • 0 avatar
      bikegoesbaa

      “it’s almost always illegal to attempt to circumvent proper law enforcement procedures”

      If I’m a drug dealer, is it a further crime for me to intentionally avoid selling to somebody who I know or suspect is a cop?

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        I should have added the word “business” somehwere. If you are a business subject to regular inspections and field checks, you will get in trouble if you systematically try to avoid them.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I can’t comment on Dal’s comment for professional reasons.

      I can say two things: 1) I’m not saying it was aliens, but… 2) it was aliens.

  • avatar
    Jeff Zekas

    Uber and Taxi companies are both garbage. Talked with a former taxi driver: “Its a scam. You can’t make any money, driving taxi.” And what did he think of Uber? “Just as bad. Ten bucks and hour, and you wear out your own car! And pay your own gas and insurance!”


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