Uber’s expansion throughout the country and the world has been extremely rapid. Sometimes that’s meant going places where its service isn’t legal, in the hopes that it may eventually be — and using a secret tool, dubbed “Greyball”, to fool law enforcement and avoid getting caught. Until, of course, they did — and now the feds are wondering if Uber crossed a criminal line.
Sources tell Reuters that the Justice Department has now opened a criminal investigation against Uber over the use of Greyball.
Reuters’ sources tell it that a grand jury in California has issued subpoenas to Uber seeking documents relating to where Greyball was deployed and how it works — indicating that there is indeed an investigation open into whether Uber may have committed a crime.
The investigation is still in its early stages and so the specific nature of any potential criminal violation, or the potential for anyone actually to end up with criminal charges filed against them, is still pretty unclear. The investigation could turn up a whole bunch of illegal actions, or it could wrap up quietly after finding nobody did anything criminally wrong.
Greyball was basically a way of fencing in users who were suspected to be law enforcement or regulators, as the New York Times revealed back in March. Uber used geolocation, phone model, credit card information, user behavior (including social media profiles), and other pieces of data to create a shadow app.
Folks who were suspected of being law enforcement, because their query fit the probably-a-cop user model built from all that data, were shunted over into a fake version of Uber that displayed “ghost” cars that couldn’t respond to requests for rides, and that obscured the locations of real cars.
After the NYT story traveled far and wide, generating tons of negative headlines, Uber promised to stop using Greyball… but that may be too little too late as far as the law is concerned.