A week after Portland city officials announced plans to subpoena Uber, the Justice Department has reportedly opened a criminal probe against the company after it was revealed that the ride-sharing app utilized deceptive software to avoid authorities in Uber-restricted cities, according to the Washington Post.
The report states that the DOJ will attempt to determine the illegality of the app’s actions and whether criminal charges are warranted.
In March, the New York Times reported on Uber’s use of proprietary software called Greyball, which had been in place since late 2014 to allegedly deceive authorities and regulators in cities where Uber was either restricted or banned, like Boston, Las Vegas and Portland, Oregon.
Using a variety of methods – social media searches, credit card information, identifying government-issued devices and geolocation – the Greyball software determined potential government authorities in restricted cities, according to the Times. Those users would see a “ghost” version of the app, a dummied version with phantom vehicles and rides that, once hailed, were canceled to avoid detection.
Authorities were aware that Uber was somehow evading detection, but the app remained one step ahead of them. “Enforcement officials involved in large-scale sting operations meant to catch Uber drivers would sometimes buy dozens of cellphones to create different accounts,” the New York Times wrote in March. “To circumvent that tactic, Uber employees would go to local electronics stores to look up device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones for sale, which were often the ones bought by city officials working with budgets that were not large.”
Uber ultimately admitted to implementing Greyball, and while the app no longer employs the software in the U.S., Greyball is still used by Uber in foreign markets. The Greyball fiasco is the latest scandal to rock Uber in recent months, pumping the brakes on a company valued at $70 billion.
In January, following Donald Trump’s first attempt to institute a travel ban on predominately Muslim countries, taxi companies in New York instituted a work stoppage at JFK airport to protest the ban. Uber responded by eliminating its “surge pricing” and picking up passengers at the airport. That move resulted in the viral #DeleteUber campaign that resulted in a reported 200,000 users deleting the app.
The following month, a female Uber engineer shared her grueling account of sexual harassment during her employment at the company, resulting in an investigation conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. That same month, a video of CEO Travis Kalanick berating an Uber driver who complained about his wages went viral.
It was also recently revealed that, in 2015, Apple CEO Tim Cook admonished Kalanick after the computer giant discovered that Uber continued to identify and tag iPhone users even after they deleted the Uber app off their device. Because that practice violated Apple’s privacy rules, Uber was forced to comply or face banishment from Apple’s industry-leading app store.